The sphynx-headed ancient glares out at the crowd as EartH vibrates with sacrificial chants and strange psych rock incantations. Across the stage, a striped Hellraiser monster does the Maybot. Then, scariest of all on this surrealist Halloween night in Hackney’s rediscovered crumbling-chic arts centre, a skeletal creature resembling something you might find crawling across the ceiling in a possession horror flick, only wearing a geography teacher’s blazer, emerges from the wings waving a mirror and claiming to “watch you when you’re eating” over terrifying, church-like doom throbs. As he writhes and crouches on the monitors, cracking his limbs into dislocated shapes, the track, entitled ‘Sometimes I Am Pharoah’, turns into a sci-fi rave, and the assembled “undead” begin to wonder just what in Hell Jarv is anymore.
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For this is Jarvis Cocker, either spooking up his secretive new Jarv Is project for the occasion – and throwing sweets into the crowd and waggling an apple hanging from a stick over the front row for them to ‘bob’ suggests as much - or diving deep into more sinister psychedelic territory. If that is his intention, he blows it sharpish, not naturally inclined to glowering enigma. ‘Sometimes…’ gives way to the semi-pastiche ‘Elvis Has Left The Building’, a funereal ‘Hound Dog’ strumbler dedicated to dead Elvis (“he’s out the door… we’re gonna be lonesome tonight”) and interrupted by a huge taped scream of applause far louder than anything EartH could muster. And Jarvis is soon nattering away to the crowd, ever Sheffield’s most loquacious geek pop bon vivant – telling off-colour Snow White jokes as he nicks a sip of a fan’s 7-Up and delivering pocket philosophies before the gnarled glam of ‘Further Complications’ (“life is simple, it starts, it goes on for a bit and it stops”). Art mystery blown, EartH at ease.
Good job too: Jarv Is demands a certain letting go. Whether dishing out pouty Bacharach lounge ballads about getting motes in your eye containing images of your exes (‘You’re In My Eyes (Discosong)’) or exploring exotic world music on the Mediterranean psych pop of ‘Children Of The Echo’ and ‘Am I Missing Something’ – an itchy mood tune about online life envy that acts as a paranoid Insta-era sister-piece to ‘The Fear’ with a Soft Cell taint – Jarvis is at the most boundless and exploratory of his career here. Building on the motoric bent of his solo albums he creates more worldly atmospheres, not least on ‘Swanky Modes’, a song that could be steeped in the menace and mythology of The Bad Seeds if it wasn’t about shagging someone above a shit shop in Camden “in the days of VHS and casual sex”. That it’s Jarvis’s sleaziest song yet, thanks to lines like “you lay down on the work surface and I got to work on your surface”, is akin to discovering that Celebrity Juice could get even less funny.
At core these are the brand sort of infectious melodies that drove Pulp, but doped up with ayahuasca and set loose at the controls of the musical universe. Most ambitious of all is ‘Must I Evolve’, which Jarvis claims is an attempt to tell “the full story of human existence in six-and-a-half minutes”, but seems to focus quite disproportionately on the Frankie Knuckles and losing drugs elements. A kind of thumping ‘Sorted For E’s And Wizz’, it’s motoric art-rock reaches such a manic degree that you’d imagine Jarv left an important part of his brain in a Dusseldorf bondage club in 1978.
Closing the main set with a stirring ‘Cunts Are Still Running The World’ because “unfortunately it’s become very appropriate again… but not for long”, he leaves EartH like the crimplene king of the resistance. Two minutes later he’s back, even more perverse. He teases the crowd with the words “so I used to be in this band called Pulp” before indulging in a distended take on obscure, conga-flecked Pulp disco EP track ‘His’n’Hers’, complete with lengthy diversions to find out what the front row fears (Trump, obviously). And finishes with a “Halloween classic”, Bauhaus’s ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, stretched and distorted to slasher flick extremes. Jarv Is, it seems, still endlessly surprising.
Next, Jarv Is play Clockenflap in Hong Kong on Sat 10 November. Check here for ticket information