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For the icon, maintenance can be a bitch. There’s only so long that you can hold a pose before you become nothing but a photograph. Fact is, icons grow like the rest of us, and Jarvis Cocker and Charlotte Gainsbourg are well aware of this. Both have been famous in Europe for years: he as the liberated libido and emblem of pop excess as the leader of Pulp, and she as an actress (The Science of Sleep) and daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. With dual solo releases, they have the luxury of reinventing themselves for the American audience.
Jarvis Cocker dissolved Pulp with 2001’s We Love Life, ending a 20-year run during which the British band mostly flew under the radar stateside—it wasn’t until 1995’s Different Class, a pulsating, danceable manifesto on class division, that the band made an impression here. (For a primer, check out last year’s two-disc Peel Sessions collection.) Following We Love Life, Cocker retreated to Paris with his wife and children and seemed to fade into the margins of Britpop nostalgia. When he returned last year he’d mellowed, streamlined into a 21st-century Bacharach. He contributed to a pair of tributes, doing a soused, louche Serge on “I Just Came to Tell You That I’m Going,” from Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, and “I Can’t Forget” in the Leonard Cohen doc I’m Your Man. On both songs Cocker proved himself a studious mimic, but he’s best when he’s playing himself: the literate gadfly and party favor. He’s found kinship as hired hand to Marianne Faithfull and Nancy Sinatra, glamorous remnants of bygone days, acting the host of an old Paris Review party.
With his solo debut, Jarvis (released overseas last year), Cocker assimilates into various niches in the pop canon, especially the mid-’60s singles era, when backroom songwriting partnerships were as celebrated as performers. The disc opens with the glam-rock empowerment anthem “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time,” written for Nancy Sinatra’s eponymous 2004 release. Cocker swaps her go-go-boots persona for sleek androgyny, using his throaty basso to take aim at “some skinny bitch” walking by in hot pants; he sounds like Lee Hazlewood playing a Spider from Mars. His laborious crate-digging leads to numerous vintage treatments on the album: Rickenbacker guitar, doo-wop, and a well-placed “Crimson & Clover” sample on “Black Magic.” But they can’t make up for a verse like “Stormy weather always makes me think of you/And watch out ’cause the storm is coming through,” which would never have made it out of the Brill Building.
Jarvis shows signs that Cocker is settling for domesticity—if not in the brightly lit corners of the neighborhood Starbucks, then a split-level with Bowie albums scattered around the attic floor. Cocker’s come-ons with Pulp have now softened to spousal errand requests. On “I Will Kill Again,” staid family portraits include raising rabbits and developing a taste for classical music, when he’d rather stay up late with a glass of wine and porn. Aware of the neighbors enviously peering through the window, he offers to switch places on “From Auschwitz to Ipswich”—“They want our way of life/Well they can take mine any time they like.” An invitation out for sex and drugs on “Tonite” sounds like the night he’d rather be having, while the slide-guitar and backing vocals could be playing on the dive jukebox.
Cocker speaks for a new generation of parent; people who will, as he recently told the British magazine The Word, “have a kid and see if it sorts me out. See if that stops me going to the pub every night.” While he chastises them with the pessimistic “Fat Children” (“fat children took my life”), he admits in the same interview that he’s softened himself. Like a lot of rocker parents who record lullabies and teach the kids to appreciate T. Rex, Cocker has adapted: He appears in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and on its soundtrack—feats that might earn him Father of the Year in Britain. But he also reads Icelandic folk tales and Salinger stories in podcasts; his compromises are as sophisticated as his new sound.