Art-rock doesn’t, as far as we know, have a glorious reputation in the working men’s clubs of South Yorkshire. Relaxed Muscle, however, suggest there’s a captive market for electro duos in Doncaster, where the regulars suffer half an hour of performance art before bingo. Why else would Darren Spooner?a man for whom the concept of a meat raffle has boundless implications?yelp “Student teachers are sexualised” over cacophonous synth fuzz while dressed as a skeleton?
Perhaps because Spooner is not just a provocateur from a hostile environment, but a man with something to hide. When Pulp brought their career to a possible close at the end of 2002, the consensus was that Jarvis Cocker would try his luck in the film world. Instead, while living in Paris with his new family, he’s been strangely inescapable this year, appearing with The Pastels, Richard X and UNKLE.
Cocker’s slightly disingenuous attempts to avoid the spotlight culminate here with his reinvention as Darren Spooner; forty something club singer with a fine line in brusque hysteria. Relaxed Muscle is Cocker/Spooner’s collaboration with Jason Buckle, Sheffield electro mainstay who figured in The All Seeing I and the Fat Truckers. Together they’ve created a grubby and entertaining fiction, a parody of Northern machismo and art-rock that betrays a love?or at least indulgence?of both.
The album succeeds, though, because Cocker can’t help but write great pop songs. The most obvious template is Suicide’s aggro-electro: “Rod Of Iron”, all malfunctioning drumbox and numbskull menace, is the image of “Ghost Rider”, at least until Spooner gets over-excited and starts snarling “Doe a deer”. Elsewhere, they echo Gary Glitter (“Beastmaster”, with bonus catfight samples), The Damned (“Tuff It Out” is an electroid rethink of “Smash It Up”, essentially), The Stooges (the marvellous “Sexualized”) and a shocking combination of Adam & The Ants and Suzi Quatro (“Muscle Music”).
“This is the sound of a man who couldn’t take it any more,”mugs Spooner on “Billy Jack”, but by the end of the night he’s morphing back into Cocker through a clutch of dirges where pathos triumphs over macho bluster. By some distance the weakest songs on the album, they’re also the ones that prove Cocker is an unusually humane writer, not least when immersed in a project as arch and meticulous as Relaxed Muscle. Even when he creates a monster like Darren Spooner, he can’t resist giving the bastard a heart.