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Jeremy Allen , November 1st, 2018 16:38

Jarvis Cocker is making a tentative return with a series of intimate gigs, including a Halloween special at new London venue EArth. Jeremy Allen asks if it gives us an idea of who exactly, in 2018, Jarv Is? Photo by Graeme Swinton

The return of the Cocker to the live musical arena has been a tentative one, with small but well-received gigs in Derbyshire caves and other intimate venues. Tonight in the dilapidated surroundings of this former cinema, there's a palpable sense of excitement at the promise of a return by the 55-year-old former Pulp singer.

Like a comedian road testing new material, this isn't the finished article. As Cocker tells the audience, "these songs only exist here”. So who is Jarvis Cocker in 2018, this pop star and radio presenter who's offering his new wares under the moniker Jarv Is. Well, Jarv Is what, exactly?

It can often feel as if the working class radical who turned the pop charts upside down has been somewhat superseded by the cuddly BBC 6 Music National Treasure Cosy Jumper 'Jarv'. Artists who've carved out such a distinctive identity (a brand, even) for themselves often risk falling into well-defined self parody. Cocker might have a sharper mind than many of his peers, but can he cut through to try something new, for now?

Cocker's career trajectory was never straightforward, of course. For those of you who missed the weird years of the mid-1990s, a recap: Pulp laboured in obscurity as perhaps the ultimate in under-achieving, charity shop clad indie, staples of John Peel and receiving occasional notices in the weekly music press. All of a sudden, the very attributes that made Cocker an outsider - the dry Northern wit, his angular physiognomy and awkward-yet-suggestive snake hips - turned him into a man of the people.

Of course, it was more than that. All the wry asides and corduroys would have been for naught were it not for the lyrical whipping together of the frustration at years in the wilderness, the hypocrisies and iniquities of the British social system that he channelled into 'Common People', 'Misshapes' or the randy class war of 'I Spy'. Then, if Pulp soundtracked the party then they also wrote the theme for the comedown, with the staggering This Is Hardcore. And then came We Love Life, which, in embracing nature and vague notions of wellness, now sounds curiously ahead of its time.

The 90s are a millstone around many necks, but do they still hang around Cockers? Since then his best moments as a solo artist have been sporadic, though three of these: 'Further Complications', 'Fat Children' and 'Cunts Are Still Running The World' will be played tonight. You don't need me to tell you that that song has become even more relevant, poignant even, since it was released in twelve years ago. Perhaps in this we see the dichotomy of what we want from Jarvis in 2018. Is it the acerbic political commentary, or is it simply for him to throw an arm around our shoulders and say in his soothing, avuncular Yorkshire burr that everything is going to be alright?

What we get is perhaps entirely unexpected - a playful hour or so themed around the gig taking place on Halloween, or as it was announced on Jarv Is' website, "an evening of frighteningly good music”. The knackered surroundings of the old cinema are suddenly illuminated by a magnificently orchestrated sequence of laser lights. There's chanting as a Tutankhamun figure appears among the dry ice. Moments later the pharaoh is joined by something or someone dressed as a zebra and Jarvis enters from stage right holding a mirror, and proceeds to sing into it with his back to the audience, intoning "I see you but you don't see me”. At first I wonder if it's a song about social media, but eccentric clues dotted around the stage don't appear to give much of a definitive answer. Later on, there's apple bobbing and tips for using satsumas as pumpkins. It occurs to me that maybe thanks to the trauma of recent times, Cocker has abandoned searing social commentary altogether and fully embraced Dadaism instead?

The truth is, at this moment, it's difficult to tell. Cocker's new band have played barely any gigs and nothing has been recorded as yet. "Thanks for staying in the room”, he jokes at one point, though you'd have been a wally to leave. 'Must I Evolve?' is a thrilling six-and-a-half minute motorik odyssey, with a deadpan "and that's how we got here” at the conclusion it seems engage with the populist age. Another peculiar song that throws up more questions than answers is 'Children Of The Echo', which offsets a kind of slowed down Curtis Mayfield verse with an anthemic chorus. 'Disco Song' too summons the spirit of Barry White, a lazy, groovy earworm of a song that's appears to be an ode to recapturing a memory.

Then there are songs that are really getting somewhere, and have the imprint of Jarvis' long thin hand all over them. The slinking and sultry 'Am I Missing Something?' addresses the modern disease some people like to call FOMO. "Standing on the brink of distinction,” he sings, "laughing all the way to the bank”, all imposed over an electronic backdrop reminiscent of Abba's 'The Day Before You Came'. And perhaps best of all, 'Swanky Modes' is about someone living above a shop in Camden who's "still trying to keep the dream alive”. It's a tale of ageing waifs and strays still doing cocaine and suffering from back pain, that longs for days of "VHS and casual sex” and sees Jarvis giving someone one over a table in a small kitchen. He's definitely still got it.

If there's nothing here that will assure us about the future or make sense of the insanity of the 21st century so far, then perhaps we should remember that's not Jarvis' job. He is still a master entertainer, that much is clear. What, exactly, Jarv Is… well, tonight certainly leaves us intrigued to wait and see.