My review of Jarvis Cocker’s book Mother, Brother, Lover: selected lyrics

In his new book of selected lyrics Jarvis Cocker tells us that he was a keen pop star but something of a reluctant lyricist. This collection shows how he honed his craft through his days at Pulp and into his more recent solo material.


In terms of its content, the book opens with a short introduction which leads into the lyrics. The book then closes with some contextual information about each of the chosen songs. This closing section, although relatively short, is perhaps the most revealing in telling the reader where certain quirky references emerged from. We find out for example who Deborah is in the song Disco 2000. That the temporally playful song Something Changed was written 12 years before it was recorded. Where the Stanhope Road referred to in the song Babies is located. And so on.
The lyrics, which Cocker reveals were often written shortly before recording, can be seen as a collection of revealing insights into the small-scale details of everyday life. There is a strong association with the place and time in which they were written. Cocker seems keen to illuminate the darker corners of everyday life through the type of ethnographic details that often go unnoticed. The lyrics are rich with the little things that Cocker notices and which then form into microcosms of life in particular times and places. The lyrics imagine and bring into view a world that is both unusual and intriguing, whilst also being conceivable and disconcertingly real. This is lyricism set against the backdrop of discomfort and excitement. They contain this kind of ambivalence about the social scenes of the last couple of decades. Cocker himself talks in the introduction of how he liked to contrast lyrical strangeness and even subversion with often quite conventional and accessible pop music. This is the kind of clash at the heart of the music he has been associated with. A sense that he doesn’t fit but that nonetheless he is the product of the specific place and era through which he is experiencing this social outsideness.

This brings us to issue of the separation of the lyrics from the music. Cocker’s own sense of discomfort with this separation comes across clearly in his discussion of lyric sheets in the opening section. And he is right. The printed lyric loses its sonic properties, and as a result loses the viscerality, vitality and, most crucially, the tone of Cocker’s delivery. So although still providing an enjoyable read this disconnection changes the sense of meaning and the visions the lyrics generate. They are still evocative but they feel flat on the page. Perhaps part of the problem is that by separating the lyrics from the music we are altering that paradoxical balance found in the songs. Without the clash of the pop with the unconventional lyrics we are loosing more than just the sonic delivery, we also lose that discomfort of wanting to be an outsider on the inside of things.

Having said this the book is a genuine work of social commentary documented over time. Although we lose the auditory dimensions of the music there is much to be discovered in the printed lyrics. In having a different perspective on the lyrics we find new insights and new urban visions. The lyrical accounts are slowed and the intricacies are easier to observe. The flatness of the printed lyrics leaves space from them to be encountered apart from musical rhythms and tonal projections. There is space then for new dimensions, narratives and images to emerge. But though in many cases I still find in reading the lyrics that I hear the song and find I’m reading to the beat. I’m sure the familiarity of some of these songs will mean that other readers will share this experience.

Finally, as Cocker alludes, we should consider the impact of this music. This book has the potential to alter the experience of listening to these songs. The extra understanding and knowledge of lyrics that might previously have passed us by as unidentified sounds mean that the songs can take on a new understanding. This book opens up some interesting relations between music and the printed word, in a very similar way to Jay-Zs recent book Decoded. When listening to the songs we hear things we missed before, consequently the song are altered for us. This might be because we now know the intricacies of the lyrics or it might also be because we now know who Deborah is or the location of Stanhope Road.

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