SONIC REDUCER Truth-telling is one of the most woefully undervalued yet powerful cudgels in an artist's arsenal so I can appreciate Jarvis Cocker's artful, chuckle-inducing application of force on, for instance, "Caucasian Blues," off his second solo disc, Further Complications (Rough Trade). And who doesn't love a rock star who can proudly bray a line like, "I heard it said /That you are hung like a white man!"
Letting it all hang out from England, Cocker complicated it further: "I was interested in how blues music has gone from the music of protest, of the oppressed, to the blandest, safest music for white people to listen to in bars. I felt like that was a very strange journey that music has been on." His son broke in, searching for socks the two were just about to leave for a holiday but the languid, chatty Cocker, 45, sounded like he was in absolutely no hurry to depart. "And then there's that thing about the mid-'40s that's when people start playing a few blues songs. I think people like blues music as they get older because they know when the changes are coming. As people get older, they want to know what's coming next.
"I try to fight against that. And in perverse way, maybe the best way to fight against that was to write a blues song, but to try to make it be about something."
I could talk to Cocker on a plane, I could talk to him on a train, and I could talk to him about blues music being "used to sell a hell of a lot of cars" in the passenger seat of an Audi tearing back to SF from Point Reyes, via iPhone and earplugs, while tapping on the trusty laptop. He's that good, that much of a closet mensch keeping it as real as a man of style and taste who happens to have sold 10 million or so discs with Pulp can.
But that was the past and the present is all about Complications, a hearty helping of purely impure, cock-eyed and wiseacre, excruciatingly literate and glittery-eyed, glam-disco-cabaret pop pleasure. The recording draws deeply from the worldly wise cabaret of true-faux intimacy practiced by the Bowie and Gainsbourg schools of Euro-rock, yet also bears the smart, impudent imprint of its complicated maker. "I want to love you while we both still have flesh on our bones /Before we become extinct," he warbles with a wink to the Thin White Duke on "Leftovers," before turning around and confessing, "I love your body /Because I've lost your mind" on "I Never Said I Was Deep." The music of a man who enjoys speaking the unspoken while amusing both himself and the listener.
And this listener had to bring up Michael Jackson, whose Christ-like 1996 BRIT Awards performance Cocker famously crashed, shaking his cheeks impertinently in the King of Pop's presence. But the man deferred with zero drama ("My phone went crazy the day after," he said mildly. "I suppose in a lot of people's minds, in this country at least, my name will forever be linked to that. I don't wish it to be."). He was willing, though, to touch on the connection critics have made between the new album and his break with wife Camille Bidault-Waddington. "It just kind of puzzled me, with some of the reviews in the U.K. at least, that go on about 'he's having a midlife crisis.' I suppose it's partly because I disclosed the fact that I split up with my wife, and that led people to say, 'This is his breakup album.' But I did conceive of this record as entertainment, rather than the primal scream of middle-aged angst."
Who knew someone willing to sing to the skies about how superficial he is, would be so ... deep? Truth now.