Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics

Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics
Jarvis Cocker
Viking, 368pp, £25

T S Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter . . . Jarvis Cocker. Not many gangly leftfield music icons get their lyrics presented as literature, let alone published by Faber & Faber, the publisher that has just appointed him as an editor-at-large this month. But here they are. Bound in brown, orange and cream - very British, very old-fashioned, very Jarvis - they cement this man's status as a national treasure. But why him? And why now? And anyway are pop lyrics poetry?

If this peculiar pop character has passed you by, here's a primer. Born in Sheffield in 1963, Cocker formed Pulp with friends in 1978; they spent the 1980s and early 1990s as alternative music also-rans, until they had their first big hit, 1995's "Common People". That was an
angry song about a posh girl who wanted to "sleep with common people, like you". Cocker emerged in the dying days of John Major's premiership as a class-conscious, much-loved pop star in a second-hand shirt.

In 1996, Cocker became a household name when he wiggled his bottom live on television in front of Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards. In 1998, he was one of the few pop stars to rail against the glossy inanities of the then new New Labour (the lyrics to Pulp's pointed B-side "Cocaine Socialism" are included here). After Pulp split up in 2002, he married, moved to France and released two solo albums, before divorcing, coming home and becoming an award-winning DJ on BBC 6 Music, a middle-aged musical Moses in a corduroy jacket.

Pulp also re-formed briefly this summer to play festival slots, and Cocker's angry onstage pronouncements about university cuts reminded music fans just how far from politics pop music had travelled. Rather than being seen as a flag-waver, however, Cocker is mostly regarded as a kind of pop Alan Bennett, filling his songs with wry and acute observations about everyday British life. This is the world into which he delves in the introduction to the book - where he also, hilariously and perhaps ill-advisedly, dismisses lyrics as unimportant (which presumably led to rending of garments at Faber headquarters). "They're a contractual obligation, a necessarily evil, an afterthought . . . [and] seeing a lyric in print is like watching the TV with the sound turned down," he writes. However - watch those publishers exhale - he turns things around: "But once you've realised that the words are not so important, then the real fun of lyric-writing can begin."

Cocker's aim as a songwriter has always been to "redress the balance" between fantasy and real life, to "put in all the awkward bits and fumblings", to "create the music I wish had been there for me in my hour of need". His songwriting is also about the details people see when they take their distance from people and situations - mothers, brothers and lovers. Cocker says he always tries "to look in the less obvious places - less obvious because they were right under your nose".

His lyrics are not typeset grandly here - after all, he writes, pushing the point, "they are not poetry: they are words to a song". Nevertheless, some of his more percussive verses and rhymes assault the eye awkwardly. These lyrics often work better when they form a narrative in prose. "David's Last Summer" (1993) is lovely - like an Alan Hollinghurst story set up north ("As we came out of the water/We both sensed a certain movement in the air . . ./As we walked home/We could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees".) And the middle-eight from 1995's "I Spy" is pure Pennines Philip Roth ("I've been sleeping with your wife for the past 16 weeks,/smoking your cigarettes,/drinking your brandy,/messing up the bed you chose together"). Cocker's political lyrics stand out, too - notably the images of "pastel leather" and "horses' hooves" in "Last Days of the Miners Strike" (2000), and the solo track that announced Cocker's comeback in 2006, "Cunts Are Still Running the World".That deadpan directness also runs through his sparse and rather rudimentary notes. He points out that his mother was the "Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)" - "although my mother's eyes are actually hazel"; that the real-life girl studying sculpture at St Martin's College in "Common People" was only doing it for a few weeks. But just as the blunt pedant starts to bore, the melancholic romantic in Cocker interrupts, gloriously. He describes liner notes as "a quiet word between friends"; he reprints a piece he wrote for an interiors magazine to describe the lyrics of "Wickerman" - a daft but lovely tale of a trip down the River Don in Sheffield in an inflatable dinghy.

Elsewhere, he argues that the title "I Never Said I Was Deep" (from his 2009 solo album Future Complications) should be inscribed on his tombstone. Cocker can deny it all he likes, but this is a man and writer who refuses to stay in the shallows.

That said, if you don't know Pulp, there won't be much for you here. You should listen to the records and then return to this volume. "Turn your defects into selling points," Cocker writes. "Don't attempt to hide a fault - exaggerate it. Make it so big that no one can see it any more." We'll be seeing his for some time yet.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying