Book review: Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics

Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics by Jarvis Cocker.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

So Pulp, eh? Possibly – nah, probably – the best band to emerge from the Britpop years of hype and arse-smacking heroin chic.

The group – in existence since 1978, if you can believe it – weren’t typically sexy. I mean, there was an effort to evoke a certain PR sexiness from lyricist Jarvis Cocker’s gangly frame, but it wasn’t the body that made him sexy: it was the combination of his writing, and of sex itself.

See, even though Pulp are probably best-known to those outside their core fanbase for a song about rich students slumming it, what they most often write about is sex, in all its amateur-video, uncomfortable, funny, transformative and debasing forms. Turns out that one of the best chroniclers of the stolen shag, the furtive knee-trembler was a bloke who seems to have spent the past couple of decades cultivating what can only be described as Geography Teacher Chic.

Looks like it’s detention again.

I became a fan of Pulp because of their relentless Englishness – their Northern grimness. They were the aural equivalent of a Mike Leigh film, something that you probably shouldn’t be staring at but that you can’t turn away from. I heeded the liner notes’ admonitions not to read the lyrics while listening to the albums (a Cocker bugbear) and inhaled the band’s take on love, sex and death in the shadow and the sublets of industrial decline.

More than other groups from the period, I felt Pulp were more nakedly honest: there was no slumming (Suede), no pot-shots in order to be the funny man (Blur), no maaaaaaate cliquishness (Oasis) and not a lot of weirdness for the sake of it (Radiohead). While cynicism does appear, there was the sense that things were being recounted openly, with a sort of honesty that others were a bit scared by. I mean, you can’t help but ache for some of the people in these tunes, whether they’re about missing out on love by this much, or about the travails of toxic masculinity, or the terrors of age.

Mother, Brother, Lover presents 66 of Cocker’s lyrics, with annotations and an introduction. While there’s a whack of songs from collaborations and his solo works, most of the choices are from Pulp’s Gift Recordings compilation onwards. Different Class features heavily, as you’d expect it to given the heavyweight status of the album in the band’s catalogue. The footnoting given the songs is helpful – Cocker wryly explains tune origins and gives the non-Sheffielder a sense of place and genesis – though not thoroughly effusive. I’d love to learn more about a lot of what’s in here, but I suspect that’s the sort of detail that is likely to surface only in an (auto)biography.

Jarvis doesn’t believe that these works are any cop as poetry, and he is adamant that the words to songs are not all that important. What comes across with these words, stripped of their musical spine, is that they are able to stand on their own, in that Wildean, in-the-gutter-looking-at-the-stars kind of way. The turn of phrase is enviable, and it is rare that a lyric sheet passes without a section that touches the reader just so. Maybe I’m sentimental, but this is a rare gift.

While it’s tempting to take something like ‘Cunts Are Still Running The World’ as an indicator of Cocker’s curmudgeonliness, there’s too much introspection and open-hearted embrace of the potential and pitfalls of love to write him off as Lou Reed in smeared specs. This collection is testament to Cocker’s and Pulp’s greatest achievement: to elevate the lives of the everyday in a way that encourages people to consider, rather than ignore.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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