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At one point during the Radio City Music Hall set from Pulp, the geek-chic Britpop band singer Jarvis Cocker gesticulated dramatically with his crotch, thrust his hips askew like a clumsy pole-dancer, and lay on his back spread-eagle. The song was “This Is Hardcore,” a sweeping, orchestral homage to porn and all the silliness of it (“That goes in there / Then that goes in there / And then it’s over”). Impossibly, Cocker was at once Serge Gainsbourg and Mr. Bean — a triumph of sexual prowess and Gumby-like flexibility. He was gleefully in on the joke, and it was mesmerizing.
Nostalgia can be a mixed bag — a sad affair awash in fleeting glory or an unwitting acknowledgement of ridiculous zeitgeist past. The reunion of Pulp, the U.K. band’s first stint in the United States in nearly 15 years (which will culminate in a Coachella appearance), was neither. A triumph of adolescent angst explored and surmounted, the band’s material — gleaned predominantly from the sharp, melodic songs of its seminal 1995 release, Different Class — stands up in the post-hipster era. Here, melody never goes out of style and Cocker, 48, today wearing an artfully drab, earthy-brown suit with matching Prince-heeled boots (inexplicably, given his reedy physique),has emerged the little nerd who could…become a bona-fide fashion icon. Because who doesn’t love a fairytale ending?
The band relived much of their colorful homages to awkward teen sex, through the vantage of winking, all-knowing adults. It began with regret (“Do You Remember”), transitioned into lust (“Pencil Skirt”), then panic (“Underwear”). “Shall we all have a shower now?” Cocker quipped, before ambling into “Something Changed.” “Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum –romance. Oh, it does exist.”
A gifted ad-libber, he discussed everything from the merits of “Louie Louie” to horoscopes. “You haven’t come here for a night of spoken word,” he said, interrupting himself self-deprecatingly. Actually, we didn’t mind. “I’m so sorry.”
His blasé utterances sharply contrasted the showiness of Pulp’s live show. Even though the five piece was a hit-less cult act in the U.S. during its heyday, they were superstars overseas, reportedly notching album sales of more than 10 million. Reminding us of this today: the use of neon-green lasers during “Sorted for E’s and Wizz,” which unwittingly referenced Kanye West’s sleek stage designs. During “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” they trotted out a smoke machine, while the thunderous “Common People” — Pulp’s biggest career hit — went back to the future, featuring projections from a night-vision camera held by Cocker that captured the giddy audience, his shoes, or whatever else tickled his fancy. The roaring crowd took bait on all of the above, with the notable exception of “I Spy,” which featured an assembly of black-clad dancers gesturing symbolically. It was the one head-scratching lull during an otherwise mind-blowing comeback.
Cocker has always been a curious frontman, whose fop-geek charm set him apart from contemporaries such as Blur’s sun-kissed, highly literate Damon Albarn or the intriguingly sexual ambiguous Brett Anderson of Suede. It’s almost fitting that Cocker’s most famous live appearance was one of his weirdest — in 1996, when he crashed the Brit Wards stage during an overblown set by Michael Jackson.“My actions were are form of protest at the way Michael Jackson sees himself as some kind of Christ-like figure” he later remarked. Also, the way he fanned his fanny in front of millions of viewers was just goofy.
At age 48, just two years shy of Jackson’s age at his death, Cocker is a changed man. While still skillfully chic, he sees the value of stage presence now, oscillating between Bryan Ferry suaveness and mock-Mick Jagger swagger. The show ended with Pulp’s jerky, outsider anthem “Mis-Shapes.” An appraisal of the awesomeness of “mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits,” this ode to the underdog was adopted in the early aughts by icy-cool scenesters, thanks to the fashionista-friendly DJ trio of the same name. “Brothers, sisters, can’t you see? The future’s owned by you and me,” he sings. Looking around at a crowd of pretty people with angular haircuts mingling with the unwashed masses, Cocker clearly had a point.
Do You Remember the First Time?
Sorted for E’s & Wizz
Louie Louie (a brief homage with Jarvis Cocker alone on guitar)
This Is Hardcore
Like a Friend
Bad Cover Version
Photos by Rachael Wright
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