Today is Jarvis Cocker’s 50th birthday! Given that he’s one of the most delightfully witty, clever and perceptive lyricists of the last couple of decades, it seems fitting to celebrate his birthday by celebrating his writing — so here, from 50 to 1, are the lines that we reckon are our hero’s best, encompassing both his work with Pulp and his solo career. Happy birthday, JC!
“If we get through this alive/ I’ll meet you next week, same place, same time” — “Bar Italia” Slightly melodramatic, perhaps, but still a pretty effective depiction of how, no matter how dreadful you feel after a big night out on the town, you’ll be ready to do it all again when next Friday night rolls around.
“Your lover just traded you in for the very same model but a much more recent year/ It will not stop/ It will get worse from day to day/ ‘Til you admit that you’re a fuck-up like the rest of us” — “Bob Lind (The Only Way is Down)” Ouch.
“Your sister knows/ Takes off your clothes/ We use your bed for goodness knows/ She’s says it’s better with two” — “Your Sister’s Clothes” Well, this sounds like fun. Apparently this lyric relates the story of the sisters from His N Hers track “Babies” (of which more later) some years on from the events narrated in that song, and it still sounds like they’re, um, a handful.
“Raise your voice in celebration/ Of the days that we have wasted in the café in the station/ And learn the meaning of existence in fortnightly installments” — “Glory Days” The instant temptation is to read “Glory Days” as a sarcastic lyric, but on closer reading, it both is and isn’t — it acknowledges that one’s youth often feels like it fails to live up to societal expectations of what it should be, but also rejoices in the fact that for all their imperfections and disappointments, our lives remain something to be celebrated.
“Without you my life has become a hangover without end/ A movie made for TV: bad dialogue, bad acting, no interest/ Too long with no story and no sex” — “TV Movie” Simple, plaintive and effective. Who hasn’t felt like this at some point?
“The light comes, and the day bleeds through the sky/ And the sun, the sun makes it hard to get through/ And the radio only plays love songs so she cries/ Though she knows it’s such a bad thing to do” — “Someone Like the Moon” And likewise.
“We laid on the bed, and we waited for the ceiling to fall in/ But it never did/ In the morning it was all still there/ The spilled milk and the dog-turd in that grey ashtray morning light” — “Love Is Blind” Cocker’s gift for imagery only really started to shine a decade or so into his career — his earlier work was more characterized by romanticism — but by the early ’90s he’d largely abandoned that for a more naturalistic, kitchen-sink-drama-y style. The change let him really find his own voice, as evidenced by the last line here, and particularly its T.S. Eliot-esque image of “grey ashtray morning light.”
“He falls to sleep again/ No cheese tonight” — “My Legendary Girlfriend” A pleasant dash of surrealism in the middle of a rather bleak piece of lyricism.
“Oh you’ll always be together, ‘cos he gets you up in leather/ So you know what to wear at the end of the day/ And I’d laugh if I saw/ But I’m out of the way” — “Pink Glove” His N Hers is an album dominated by stories of sordid, dysfunctional relationships, often involving girls with whom its narrator has been intimate in the past. So it goes with this song, the titular “pink glove” being the “sexy” outfits its subject’s new boyfriend makes her wear. The “together/leather” rhyme is great, and the rest is just sad and rueful.
“Last night I had a little altercation/ They wobbled menacingly beneath the yellow street light/ It became a situation/ Well, they wanted my brand-new phone with all the pictures of the kids and the wife/ A struggle ensued, and then fat children took my life” — “Fat Children” Cocker’s let his sense of humor really flourish on his solo albums, and it permeates even this account of being mugged in an underpass. Also, “they wobbled menacingly” is one of the greatest images he’s ever conjured up.
“Here comes your bedtime story: Mum and Dad have sentenced you to life” — “I Love Life” Despite this “This Be the Verse”-esque opening line, this is the most upbeat song on We Love Life. But that line does grab your attention, doesn’t it?
“When you left, I didn’t know how I was going to forget you/ I was hanging by a thread, and then I met her/ Selling pictures of herself to German businessmen” — “She’s a Lady” It really doesn’t get a whole lot more sordid than that.
“Oh, we like women/ ‘Up the women,’ we say/ And if we get lucky/ We might even meet some one day” — “Joyriders” Men really don’t fare well on His N Hers. Cocker dissects his own imperfections mercilessly throughout, and other males feature largely as abusive or manipulative boyfriends. In this case, though, they’re not even that — they’re the sort of brutal oiks who haunt town centers after closing time, looking for trouble. Cocker’s contempt for them is obvious, and expressed beautifully in this pithy putdown.
“Have you ever heard other people fucking, and really enjoying it?/ It’s a marvelous sound/ Not like in the movies, but when it’s real/ It’s such a happy, exciting sound” — “Sheffield, Sex City” Um, yeah, sure it is!
“If fashion is your trade, then when you’re naked, I guess you must be unemployed, yeah?” — “Underwear” Perhaps the best casual one-liner of Cocker’s career, and that’s saying something.
“I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials” — “Dishes” Our hero’s wry sense of humor is the stuff of legend, and it shines through in this song, which takes the idea of kitchen sink drama to its logical extreme — it’s a song about doing the dishes, and its understated domesticity is all the more effective considering the partied-out alienation that characterizes much of This Is Hardcore.
“First you let him in your bed/ Now he’s moved inside your head/ And he directs all the dreams you are dreaming” — “Have You seen Her Lately?” Much of His N Hers deals with dysfunctional relationships, but none of them are sadder than the one portrayed here — the song finds Cocker imploring a female friend (or, in the context of the album, probably an ex-girlfriend) to leave her controlling, abusive boyfriend. You get the feeling she won’t.
“Now that you’re free/ What are you gonna be?/ Who are you gonna see?/ And where, where will you go?/ And how will you know you didn’t get it all wrong?” — “Monday Morning” It’s pretty remarkable that Cocker was in his early 30s when he wrote this song, because it’s a perfect evocation of how you feel when you finish high school and find yourself wondering what in god’s name you’re gonna do next. The future is a flat, blank canvas stretching out in front of you, as terrifying as it is exciting.
“I was 17 when I heard the countdown start/ It started slowly, and I thought it was my heart/ But then I realized that this time it was for real/ There was no place to hide” — “Countdown” In a similar vein, from five years earlier.
“If this show was televised/ No one would watch it, not tonight” — “Live Bed Show” Porn would feature heavily on This Is Hardcore, but two years earlier, Cocker was already exploring the idea of putting relationships on film — the genius of this song is that its pathos comes from the fact that it’s a film that no one would want to watch.
“I met her in the Museum of Paleontology/ And I make no bones about it” — “Leftovers” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Cocker will be here all week. Try the veal.
“Some joker in a headband was still gettin’ chicks for free/ And Big Brother was still watching you, back in the days of ’83” — “Last Day of the Miners’ Strike” This was the only new song on Hits, and it ties into the themes of socialism that characterized both Different Class and some of This Is Hardcore. As a Yorkshireman, Cocker would have been close to the front lines of the miner’s strike, and his recollections of the era are clearly vivid, even if his dates are a bit off (“Money for Nothing” wasn’t released until 1985).
“The room smells faintly of suntan lotion/ In the evening sunlight and when you take off your clothes/ You’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini” — “David’s Last Summer” The closing track to His N Hers ends the album on a surprisingly romantic and upbeat note. Take it from a male: there are few sights more thrilling and/or beautiful than this.
“This cut-price dairy produce that turns our bones to dust/ You want some entertainment? Go on, shove it up me, if you must/ Make believe you’re so turned on by planting trees and shrubs/ But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze ‘n’ drugs” — “Weeds” Nature imagery is a constant throughout the largely underrated We Love Life, and it works particularly well here, depicting refugees who’ve immigrated to England as the “weeds and mutations… dense undergrowth” of society.
“You’ve got no need, but still you want/ So go and book that restaurant” — “I’m a Man” Hi, Don Draper!
“I used to think that people all chose the lives they led/ But so many different choices that you’ve got to make instead/ Don’t write a novel — a shopping list is better” — “Further Complications” Oh so witty, and oh so true.
“You can tell some lies about the good times that you’ve had/ But I’ve kissed your mother twice/ And I’m working on your dad” — “Pencil Skirt” OUCH. On Different Class, sex features as much as a weapon as anything else, a way of hurting those who you can’t hurt directly. But even with that in mind, this is pretty brutal.
“Every touch reminds you of just how sweet it could have been/ And every time he kisses you, you get the taste of saccharine” — “Bad Cover Version” And, of course, the video (above) is ace.
“I look like a big man/ but I’ve only got a little soul” — “A Little Soul” It’s hard not to think this song about a father imploring a son not to grow up like him explores the relationship between Cocker and his own father, who deserted his family when Jarvis was seven and resurfaced years later when his son became rich and famous.
“The fisher king of the Isle of Dogs/ Feels up children in the bogs/ Stand by the playing field/ And someone sets a car on fire” — “Mile End” One of the highlights of the Trainspotting soundtrack, this song finds Cocker recalling an early London squat with… well, not fondness, put it that way.
“Oh, what are you doing Sunday, baby?/ Would you like to come and meet me, maybe?/ You can even bring your baby…” — “Disco 2000″ From optimism to resignation in the course of three lines.
“You can dye your hair, but it’s the one thing you can’t change/ Can’t run away from yourself” — “Help the Aged” This is all true.
“It’s such a beautiful world, and you’re such a beautiful girl/ And he only did what he did/ ‘Cos you look like one of his kids” — “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died” A song about a girl hitching a ride home from a dance party with a creepy older man, who murders her. And if that’s not dark enough, well, this lyric just about clinches it.
“The trouble with your brother, he’s always sleeping with your mother/ And I know that your sister missed her time again this month” — “Razzamatazz” How about that for an attention-grabbing opening line?
“When you’re no longer searching for beauty or love/ Just some kind of life with the edges taken off/ When you can’t even define what it is that you’re frightened of/ This song will be here” — “The Fear” Well, hello there, panic attack.
“The river flows on beneath pudgy fifteen-year olds addicted to coffee whitener/ Courting couples naked on Northern Upholstery/ And pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips” — “Wickerman” Underground rivers are a fascinating, compelling metaphor for the course of a relationship, and Cocker explores the idea in detail here, in a song that reads more like a short story or prose poem than a traditional rock lyric. It allows for some of his most vivid writing — the image of “pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips,” in particular, is flat-out brilliant.
“I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past 16 weeks/ Smoking your cigarettes/ Drinking your brandy/ Messing up the bed that you chose together/ And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon/ And catch us at it in the front room” — “I Spy” Cocker at his most venomous, and given that pretty much all his lyrics are autobiographical to some extent, it’d be fascinating to know the story behind this. The song ties into Different Class‘s themes of class differences, with Cocker wanting both to destroy his lover’s rich husband and to spirit her away to a different life. The first, it seems, is far more likely than the second.
“I was having a whale of a time until your uncle psychosis arrived/ Why do we have to half kill ourselves just to prove we’re alive?” — “Party Hard” And yeah, how many times have we asked ourselves that question on a dance floor at 4 am?
“On a pink quilted eiderdown, I want to pull your knickers down/ Net curtains blow slightly in the breeze/ Lemonade light filtering through the trees” — “Acrylic Afternoons” One of Cocker’s talents is his gift for evoking a sense of place with a couple of judicious images, and if you’ve ever spent any time in northern England, you’ll know how perfect this is. And as ever with our hero, of course, the beautiful is juxtaposed with the sordid.
“Everybody asks your name/ They say we’re all the same/ And now it’s ‘Nice one,’ ‘Geezer’/ But that’s as far as the conversation went/ I lost my friends, I dance alone/ It’s six o’clock, I wanna go home/ But it’s ‘No way,’ ‘Not today’/ Makes you wonder what it meant” — “Sorted for E’s and Wizz” Rave scene alienation — once the drugs wear off, so does the urge to hug everyone you’ve ever met (and, indeed, to give them a lift home.)
“It rains every day/ And when it doesn’t, the sun makes you feel worse anyway” — “Lipgloss” Breakups really suck, especially when the guy in question has given you a week to get out of his house. Ouch.
“I only went with her ‘cos she looks like you/ My god!” — “Babies” It’s the “My god!” that makes this so memorable. When Pulp played Radio City Music Hall a while back, Cocker said that the song was essentially autobiographical, although only he knows exactly how much is true. The mind boggles.
“But what I want to know is/ What exactly do you do for an encore?” — “This Is Hardcore” The darker-than-dark payoff to “This Is Hardcore” the song and to This Is Hardcore the album — the realization that the hedonistic search for more and more pleasure is endless and, ultimately, empty.
“All the stuff they tell you about in the movies/ But this isn’t chocolate boxes and roses, it’s dirtier than that/ Like some small animal that only comes out at night” — “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” This is the Cocker aesthetic in three lines. And it’s brilliant.
“Well, you sing about common people/ And the misshapes and the misfits/ So can you bring them to my party?/ Can you get them all to to sniff this?” — “Cocaine Socialism” A deeply sardonic indictment of New Labour and its eagerness to align itself with Britpop — written, apparently, before the 1997 election that brought Tony Blair to power, which only proves Cocker was more prescient than most. The “party” double entendre is particularly clever, and is repeated later in the song when Cocker sings “We’ve waited such a long time for a chance to help our own kind/ Please come on and toe the party line.”
“The meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all/ If you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more” — “The Day After the Revolution” From the same era, and laden with the same brutally bitter sarcasm at the fact that once New Labour came to power, it turned out that the new boss was very much the same as the old boss.
“Do you remember the first time?/ I can’t remember a worse time/ But you know that we’ve changed so much since then/ Oh yeah, we’ve grown/ Now I don’t care what you’re doing/ No, I don’t care if you screw him/ Just as long as you save a piece for me” — “Do You Remember The First Time?” The best song on His N Hers, and the one that best embodies its lyrical themes, contrasting the fumbling innocence of the past with a cynical, squalid present. And yet, somewhere in there, there’s still the remnants of love and purity, something to hold onto as the days slip away.
“If you thought things had changed/ Friend, you’d better think again/ Bluntly put/ In the fewest of words/ Cunts are still running the world” — “Running the World” Ain’t that the truth.
“We learned too much at school/ Now we can’t help but think/ That the future that you’ve got mapped out/ Is nothing much to shout about” — “Mis-Shapes” Different Class set out its themes in its very first song (and, indeed, with the album title) — the great lie of Britain’s “classless society,” and the enduring negative impact of social stratification.
“You will never understand how it feels to live your life/ With no meaning or control/ And with nowhere left to go/ You are amazed that they exist/ And they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why” — “Common People” And yes, it had to be. This line comes when it seems like “Common People” can’t get any more intense — and then it does. If there is hope, it lies in the proles.