Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales - Room 29 - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales - Room 29

by Kevin Orton Rating:8 Release Date:2017-03-17

“Help yourself to the pretzels, help yourself to the mini bar”, Jarvis Cocker invites on the opening track of Room 29. Then quips, “I couldn’t help myself so, I read a Self-Help book.” A few plunks on a lonely piano and he muses, “Don’t open the curtains, I’m allergic to sun.” He then opines, “Is there anything sadder than a hotel room that hasn’t been fucked in?” 

Those tinkling ivories are Cocker’s constant companion for what is most undeniably a concept album. This collaboration with pianist, Chilly Gonzalas finds Pulp’s defiantly bespectacled front man in his smoking jacket, sipping claret. Musically, one can't help but notice Room 29 owes much to Serge Gainsbourg. Intentionally, so. Our host, just the ghost of a protagonist. Trapped in some endless nightmare of a Parisian hotel. With Gitanes dangling from lower lip, he plunks away in the wee small hours, seemingly lost in Casablanca flash back mode. Summoning the specters of dead movie stars and Howard Hughes.

Room 29 is heavy on atmosphere but often light on the instrumentation. Centering on Cocker's whispered vocals and Gonzalas' tinkling of the ivories. Furthermore, its set in one pervasive, hushed mood. On occasion, we get some cinematic flourishes but mostly the album has the solitary feel of a late night demo.  

‘Clara’ founds Cocker in satiric, Cole Porter mode, “Everything was harmonious, everything was melodic and now you’re a lonely widow and your daughter’s alcoholic.” Cheerful stuff.  Elsewhere, ‘Bombshell’ name checks Jean Harlow, if only to ruminate on loss. Strings churn, elephant teeth are tickled, as Cocker confesses, “I guess I dropped the bombshell, she got bored and left”. In a somber way, this one brings Ray Davies and the Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes to mind.

‘Belle Boy’ stirs up the maudlin atmosphere, rousing up the spirit of Pulp in their heyday. “Life could be a bed of roses if it weren’t filled with so many pricks,” our host observes wryly. “When someone has to stand between the shit and the fan, that man is the bell boy.” “Give it up for the bell boy,” Cocker demonically enthuses.

‘Howard Hughes Under the Microscop’ is an instrumental interspersed with clips about the reclusive billionaire. “I’d like to screw movie stars, I’d like to own movie stars,” the interviewee says of Hughes. Without so much as singing a note, Cocker’s disdain is plain. It’s not the kind of track that is going to rope in listeners but it should give you some indication of what awaits you in Room 29.

 ‘Salomé’ is the most lushly orchestrated track and finds Cocker doing his very best Stephen Sondheim. “I found my head in a box and I got quite a shock”, he sings. Despite the surreal lyrics, it’s clear he’s lost his head over a girl. A girl who keeps his head in a box, under her arm. She occasionally lets him out and he “loses his mind” as she shakes her “pretty money maker.” It’s a curious number for a curious album.

By the time ‘Daddy, You’re Not Watching Me’ rolls around, the piano and whispered intimations begin to grow a little thin and the album begins to take on a decidedly claustrophobic and uncomfortable feel. Which, I strongly suspect is intentional. Clearly this isn’t an album out to pander. At this point, Room 29 begins to feel like Cocker’s answer to Lou Reed’s Berlin. Or possibly, the Hotel California. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.  

The sprawling album reaches its climax with ‘A Trick of the Light’. More than any tune, this slice of melodrama verges on Broadway Musical territory. Deliberately so. All that remains is a reprise of the opening track and the album’s closing number, ‘Ice Cream as Main Course’.  For my money, Cocker has saved the best for last, tipping his hat to classic Roxy Music.

This not an album for Pulp fans. Hardcore Jarvis Cocker fans, perhaps. Like Elvis Costello’s North, it mostly plays out in the same intimate, smothering mood. The occasional orchestral sweeps, as theatrical as Costello’s Juliet Letters. If it weren’t for Cocker’s innate wit and humor, the feat presented here could easily have suffocated on its own conceit. While not always accessible, Room 29 is a compelling listen.   


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