What songs! What shoes! What a hair(line)! Look Sharp! sounded as striking as its cover photo looked, and Joe Jackson was anointed a member — alongside Graham Parker and Elvis Costello — of England’s angry young troubadours club. (It took a while to recognize how completely dissimilar the three were at the time.) Although he wasn’t so disgusted (more like archly amused), Jackson was the first of the three to really sell records in America, largely due to the hit singledom of the wry “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Jackson’s songs mixed cheek, edge and a self-deprecating wit that set him apart from his more serious peers. Maybe all the lyrics don’t sound as clever now as they seemed back then, but stuff like “Happy Loving Couples” and “Pretty Girls” took the pulse of post-adolescent heebie-jeebies, and kicked a little butt, too. The 2001 remaster adds two B-sides: “You Got the Fever” and “Don’t Ask Me.”
Taking his long career into consideration, Jackson deserves a lot of credit for being the proverbial smartest guy in the room without ever being a jerk. Sure, there have been times when his ambition has over-reached, his intelligence and sophistication shading into insufferable pretension, but he’s never succumbed to complacency or self-satisfaction. Few artists have shown as deep a dedication to creative progress (forward and backward), and for that it is easy to forgive his occasional missteps.
Much of the material on I’m the Man dates from/is an extension of Look Sharp!, though several songs up the bile quotient, notably “On Your Radio” and “Don’t Wanna Be Like That.” The revved-up lyrics are balanced by catchy high-speed pop-rock (as on the title tune and “Get That Girl”) and that affecting approximation of genius, “It’s Different for Girls.” The LP may lack the crispness and consistent impact of its predecessor, but it’s a strong and enduring platter. The 2001 remaster adds the B-side to “I’m the Man”: a hot live version of Chuck Berry’s “Come On.”
That Jackson was seeking an alternative to the fast-paced rock ‘n’ roll of his first two albums was signaled by The Harder They Come EP (a straight reggae reading of the Jimmy Cliff song, plus two Jackson originals) and then trumpeted in no uncertain terms by Beat Crazy, the final LP with his original tight-knit band. Jackson put it bluntly in the liner notes: “This album represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of Rock and Roll. Deep in our hearts, we knew it was doomed to failure. The question remains: Why did we try?” The attempt seems less desperate than just plain confused, and its failure makes the LP the least satisfying of his initial salvo.
Joe then took a musical journey through the past, recording Jumpin’ Jive in tribute to the great Louis Jordan: cool jazz vocals over mock big-band swing. Obviously enjoying himself (for once), Jackson romps his way through “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and related gems from the Louis Jordan/Cab Calloway school of hepness. Jackson’s production is warm and loving; though clearly a respite from the official progress of his music, Jumpin’ Jive is enormous fun and has held up over time.
Night and Day proved to be Jackson’s most successful outing since Look Sharp!, although the urban/Latin flavor bears not the slightest resemblance to the white-hot sound of his early days. The Latin rhythms seem less him than the buoyant bop of Jumpin’ Jive, yet Jackson is obviously sincere. The Real Men EP is “Real Man” from Night and Day plus three more from the LP with vocals in Spanish. The 2003 deluxe remaster adds a second CD containing demos for six songs from the album, five live recordings from the Night and Day tour (all of which had appeared on Live 1980/86) and five songs from the Mike’s Murder soundtrack.
Jackson’s next departure — an intended film soundtrack — became something of an embarrassment. Months after the Mike’s Murder album (billed as music from the film) appeared, the James Bridges picture still hadn’t, and rumors circulated over which problems were causing the delay; while the decision not to use Jackson’s music was one of them, that could hardly have been the prime problem. Regardless, it’s Jackson at his least assured, and the most notable item is “Memphis,” whose organ line and rhythm are lifted straight from the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
Jackson survived that debacle to make Body and Soul, an ambitious attempt to simplify and repersonalize the recording process as much as possible. With a distant, light sound — quite in contrast to the stuffy closeness of most contemporary records — and ’50s jazz stylings tinged by an ongoing affection for Latin music, the record has plenty of atmosphere, and contains some of his strongest, most mature songwriting. Unlike his previous time-tunnel trip, Body and Soul eschews period re-creation (except on the cover) in favor of a wistful ambience indicative of Jackson’s distaste for much modern music.
The three-sided Big World was recorded live directly to a digital stereo master with a small band at a three-day New York concert engagement staged especially for that purpose in January 1986. With no post-production tinkering of any sort, the fifteen new songs — some about current world political affairs, others about societal issues — are reproduced on two discs as accurately as possible. Stylistically, Big World is a return to stripped-down, lightly seasoned jazzy rock. A little self-important (the rampantly multi-lingual booklet smacks of grandstanding) and creatively inconsistent, but an impressively ambitious effort.
Redolent with unrestrained pomposity, the ironically titled Will Power is an instrumental album that mixes Jackson’s least interesting film-score composition style with the “overture for two pianos” which turned into the title track. The type-free cover and the inside photo of the suffering artist, sitting dejectedly alone in a huge studio, merely indicate the imagined depths of this trivial self-indulgence. While Jackson may be impressed by his ability to convince an orchestra to play his melodramatically panoramic music, it’s unlikely anyone else will find this exercise especially rewarding.
The conceptually masterful 1988 live album is divided into four different creative eras; each side presents a different incarnation of the Joe Jackson Experience. Side One, recorded in Manchester and Holland in 1980, features material from the first three albums, played with his original backing trio. Side Two (1983), recorded with a keyboard-laden quintet in Sydney, Australia, is billed as “The Night and Day Tour” but contains only “Cancer” from that album. Instead, it draws further from the same three records, offering the second (this time a cappella) rendition of “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” on the LP. Side Three (1984), recorded in Sydney and Melbourne during the horn-heavy “Body and Soul Tour,” again includes that song, only this time in an acoustic version; Side Four (1986) hails from Canada and Japan and features a straight electric rock quartet doing selections (including “Breaking Us in Two,” “It’s Different for Girls” and “Jumpin’ Jive”) from various albums.
Comparing Mike’s Murder with Tucker shows that Jackson learned not to make the same mistake twice. Although the latter picture was a commercial flop, it was a Francis Ford Coppola flop, and at least had some artistic raison d’être. To his credit, Jackson’s music is of a piece with the project’s high quality: a cinematic use of ’40s-style jazz, with a spot of artistic license, allowing for a few anachronistic styles and production techniques. But it’s deftly crafted, credible stuff — there’s even an apparent nod to Thelonious Monk — that creates its moods well.
Blaze of Glory is a concept album that’s not a concept album. You can imagine him saying, “On this concept album, every song can stand on its own,” a self-defeating approach that virtually defies the realization of any overriding plan. Still, the idea — a rock’n’roller of Jackson’s generation followed from frustrated childhood to chastened but wistful adulthood — is not so fancy that it really needs much elucidation. Indeed, the songs can stand alone, and most are unquestionably cogent and catchy (faves include “Nineteen Forever” and “The Human Touch”). In the process, Jackson answers the Beat Crazy question: rock may no longer be his message, but it still can be a swell medium.
Ending a decade-long association with A&M Records, Jackson arrived at his new label in 1991 a confident, accomplished pop auteur ready for whatever challenges he could envision. The overwhelmed consumer indecision of “It’s All Too Much” (“They say that choice is freedom / I’m so free it drives me to the brink”) sets the tone on Laughter & Lust. “Only love can be stranger than fiction,” he sings, expressing bewilderment in aisles outside the supermarket. Smiling through the tears, Jackson elaborates on the confounded romantic theme in “Goin’ Downtown,” “Drowning” and “Jamie G.,” while expressing unhappy certainty in the difficulties of “When You’re Not Around” and “The Other Me.” Pictured on the cover in prison stripes toting a ball and chain, Jackson soft-pedals the wry adventures of an Englishman living in New York, keeping his stylistic ambitions to himself. The lyrics do the heavy lifting; backed by longtime musicians Graham Maby (bass), Sue Hadjopolous (percussion) and others, the singer/keyboardist keeps to a straight, sophisticated middle rock-pop road that is suitable but uncharacteristic after so many genre explorations. The current-events commentary of “Obvious Song” is a sore thumb, and “Hit Single” breaks the thoughtful mood with a novelty conceit, but otherwise Laughter & Lust is an affecting, reflective album. Given its threatening, self-appraising tone, Jackson’s close copy of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac classic “Oh Well” fits in quite well.
Night Music returns Jackson to the realm of high concepts, although exactly what the tranquil album’s concept might be — beyond an intricately futile attempt to conjure up the sound of dreams — is hard to divine between four nocturnes (played variously on piano and by string quartet) and such weirdly melodic lyrical contraptions as “Flying” and “The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy” (a duet of sorts with Clannad’s Máire Brennan). “The older I get the more stupid I feel,” Jackson sings. Stupidity isn’t the problem here, musical selfconsciousness is. Mixing together a little Tin Pan Alley, some Gaelic folk flute, a spot of classical singing and chamber arrangements, Night Music is a torpid fever fantasy that scarcely suggests the peaceful imaginings of sleep.
The track listing on the back cover spells out the core concept of Heaven and Hell more clearly. Playing nearly all the instruments himself (he allows assistance from string players, a few percussionists and several guest vocalists), Jackson offers a musical exploration of the seven deadly sins. Jane Siberry sings the roles of two sisters estranged by their mutual envy in “The Bridge,” a tranquil number that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Siberry’s own albums. Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies sings the role of the lazy slob in “Passacaglia / A Bud and a Slice,” who thinks going to the movies proves that he has culture…and who drags his daughter along, not caring when she’s sickened by the violence on the screen. With a Greek chorus (Croatian, actually) of black marketeers and scavengers joining in, the grim “Tuzla” paints a picture of the economy of a war-torn land: “Of all the sterling men of steel / We crave the one who’ll teach us not to feel.” Over the powerhouse rhythm track of “Right” (courtesy of They Might Be Giants drummer Dan Hickey, John Mellencamp stalwart Kenny Aronoff and Times Square plastic bucket percussionist Jared Crawford), Jackson delivers perhaps the most pop-wise melody on the disc — and alternates it with outbursts of monosyllabic cursing over banging atonal piano. These lyrical explorations are set into complex musical frameworks, some of which are quite effective. The anxious, frenetic lead-in to “Fugue 1 / More is More,” for example, conveys the impression of busy cooks and waiters rushing to bring course after course to demanding patrons. On the other hand, Suzanne Vega’s dry, blasé come-ons over the jittery keyboards in “Angel” sound about as lustful as a trip to the dentist’s office. The album starts out solemn and gets increasingly downbeat, in keeping with the subject matter. The few uplifting moments, such as soprano Dawn Upshaw’s quotes from the Ave Gloriosa in “Angel,” or the graceful orchestral intro to “Fugue 2 / Song of Daedalus,” don’t provide enough light to balance the relentless gloom. Jackson is clearly determined to avoid being pigeon-holed and to challenge listeners, but Heaven and Hell is a musical Purgatory that even his most die-hard fans will not care to visit more than once.
Symphony No. 1, on the other hand, is worth repeated listens. In classical music terms, the 46-minute piece is sort of a hybrid. It’s structured in four movements — a gradually developing first movement, a fast second, a slow third and a finale that blends and resolves all the themes from the preceding three. Rather than an orchestra, though, Jackson recorded the CD with a ten-piece ensemble of jazz players (trumpeter Terence Blanchard, trombonist Robin Eubanks), rockers (guitarist Steve Vai) and more “experimental” artists (flautist Patti Monson, violinist Mary Rowell), as well as a few returning veterans (drummer Gary Burke, percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos). In keeping with his previously demonstrated eclecticism (and the mixture of musicians), Jackson weaves plenty of sounds more familiar in rock and jazz into his arrangements, from Blanchard’s sax explorations in the first movement to Vai’s electric soloing in the third — not to mention Jackson’s own keyboards, which approach prog-rock in spots. In the liner notes (with a trace of the Big World-style overreach, presented in three languages), Jackson explains that he intends this symphony as the musical story of a life, from childhood to old age. Sure enough, this theme is reflected in the feel of the music, from the slow, exploratory development of the first movement to the energy of the second movement to the reflective, melancholy of the third. (Jackson hasn’t matured so much, though, that he could be described as jaded. An older composer probably wouldn’t be so optimistic that old age — represented in the final movement — brings “clarity and balance, like a juggler keeping all the balls in the air.”) Much as Tucker showed what Jackson had learned from the Mike’s Murder debacle, Symphony No. 1 displays a maturity and clarity that was missing from Will Power. Rock and pop fans may find it meandering, but Symphony No. 1 is a graceful, satisfying work.
After publishing his excellent memoir A Cure for Gravity, Jackson moved to the next phase of his musical career: reflecting on past successes. At least he made no bones about this, calling his next album Night and Day II. On the 1982 album, though, the artist simply let the energy and vibe (and ethnic popular music) of the Big Apple inform his music, rather than writing about it explicitly. This time, he presents a nine-song journal of the city. (The cover photo, taken through a taxi’s windshield, places the artist in the rear view mirror.) Guests vocalize the characters Jackson chronicles. Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim’s operatic voice imparts grace to the deliberately pidgin English lyric of the immigrant’s lament “Why.” Drag performer Dale de Vere describes a prostitute’s recurring dream of vengefully murdering one of her johns in the disco-tinged “Glamour and Pain.” Marianne Faithfull lends her elegant weariness to “Love Got Lost,” which in tone and arrangement could almost be a sequel to “She’s Leaving Home,” showing the Beatles’ young protagonist after a few dreary, lonely decades in the work-a-day world. Jackson saves the disc’s few humorous moments for himself, saluting the oddest characters he’s found in his adopted hometown in “Stranger Than You” and painting a picture of a neurotic New Yorker in “Just Because…” (“My hovel needs a barricade / My pants need an alarm / Need some non-alcoholic whiskey / And some Giuliani charm”). He even adds a bit of mordant wit to the tale of young romance cut short by a nightclub fire in “Happyland”: “And then she heard the screams / And saw the smoke come down / And then it really turned into the hottest club in town.” Jackson recorded most of the music himself, with steady support from the string quartet Ethel and contributions from Burke, Hadjopoulos and Maby. His melodies and arrangements are as strong as ever, but the music feels rather hermetic compared to the joyous salsa-informed band interplay of Night and Day. Rather than a sequel to the original album, Night and Day II is a dimly lit reflection, with the piano hook from “Steppin’ Out” popping up repeatedly as a pointed reminder of the connection.
A pair of dissimilar live albums bookended Night and Day II‘s release. Jackson recorded Summer in the City in New York with Maby and Burke. The piano-plus-rhythm-section format suits both Jackson’s originals (“Obvious Song,” “Another World,” “It’s Different for Girls,” “One More Time”) and his selection of covers (the Lovin Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” a charming turn on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”), but really shines when it blends them. Mixing “For Your Love” into “Fools in Love” brings out the implicit desperation the Yardbirds missed in the earlier song. (Not that they were looking very hard for it, if Clapton is to be believed…but that’s another review.) Likewise, the medley of “Down to London” and “The ‘In’ Crowd,” enhances the jazzy qualities of Jackson’s tune and underscores the hint of melancholy in Ramsey Lewis’ 1965 hit. And the trio not only delivers a masterful cover of Steely Dan’s “King of the World,” but segues from there into a passionate, urgent performance of “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)” that makes the original studio version sound stuffy. Two Rainy Nights was recorded during the West Coast leg of the Night and Day II tour. The six selections from that album gain a lot of warmth and energy from the concert hall ambiance and a full band. Jackson’s piano playing (especially his counterpoint with the string players on “Stranger Than You”) is lively throughout. Violinist Allison Cornell gives a fine vocal cameo on “Glamour and Pain.” The band also recasts “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “Got the Time” in very appealing salsa arrangements — the first relaxed and playful, the latter suitably intense and driving. Hadjopoulos turns out to be the MVP of this outing; her percussion keeps the energy level of the whole set high from start to finish. Her attack on “You Can’t Get What You Want,” in particular, is breathtaking. These two live albums confirm that, however unpredictable or bewildering he may get in the studio, Jackson’s onstage prowess has only grown stronger with time. Two Rainy Nights also reaffirms his under-appreciated knack for bringing talented musicians together and molding them into genuine ensembles.
Jackson then reunited his original trio (Maby, guitarist Gary Sanford and drummer Dave Houghton) to record Volume 4, titled to be a successor to his first three albums. A few of the songs on this CD would have fit well on any of those. “Take It Like a Man” and “Bright Grey” are urgent rockers that echo “One More Time” and “Got the Time,” respectively (and, perhaps tellingly, bookend the album); “Awkward Age,” “Little Bit Stupid” and the reggae-informed “Thugz ‘r’ Us” (a spoof of clueless gangsta wannabes) have a similarly familiar feel. On most of the eleven tracks, though, the band steers away from simply revisiting the old days. Instead, the musicians tailor their supple, intelligent support to the songwriting, from the Beatlesque chime of “Still Alive” to the gentle waltz of “Love at First Light” to the torch-song treatments of “Chrome” and “Blue Flame.” Sanford deploys a snarling funk guitar over the rhythm section’s 5/4 drive in “Fairy Dust,” a harsh riposte to overbearing, militant gays; the band leans into a down-and-dirty blues groove in “Dirty Martini.” For his part, Jackson writes with more consistent wit on Volume 4 than on any album in years. The narrator of “Awkward Age” counsels an anxious teenager who has “a scowl like a Klingon beauty queen.” “Love at First Light” is a story of romance found unexpectedly in a one-night stand: “I only wish that I could remember your name / But I know it’s written on a matchbook somewhere / So maybe I’ll find it / And maybe you’ll care.” Neither a nostalgic rehash nor a quick cash-in, Volume 4 showcases a by-now classic band that has somehow managed to grow together after a couple of decades apart. (A deluxe edition of the album includes a bonus disc of live recordings — three songs each from Look Sharp! and I’m the Man — from the band’s reunion / warm-up tour.)
The US version of Afterlife was recorded at four California shows on the Volume 4 tour. The single disc combines four songs from Volume 4 with seven selections from Jackson’s original albums with the band, plus a fairly faithful version of “Down to London,” a quartet rendition of the “Fools in Love”/”For Your Love” medley and a sumptuous piano-plus-voice recasting of “Steppin’ Out.” The European release pairs that CD with a 19-song disc recorded at an Amsterdam show on the same tour. The Dutch set-list overlaps a lot with the American one, but also includes “Thugz ‘r’ Us,” “Obvious Song,” “Be My Number Two,” “Friday,” “I’m the Man,” “It’s Different for Girls,” “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and Joe’s solo performance of the Beatles’ “Girl.”
Following a dual-headliner tour with Todd Rundgren, Jackson returned to the trio format, recording Rain with Maby and Houghton in his newly adopted hometown of Berlin. He continues to write to his strengths on this disc, coming up with lyrics that are personal and accessible at the same time. The protagonist of “Too Tough” tells a new romantic interest, “You’ve really gotten underneath my skin / Must have been easy / It was always thin.” “King Pleasure Time” is a spirited tribute to the ’50s jazz vocalist, and to the virtues of the classic musical verities, but it’s his own maturity that Jackson reflects in “Invisible Man”: “Why did the lights go down / Or onto someone new? / Well, let them learn / I used to own this town / Now I’m watching you / Now it’s my turn / Now I’m almost free / Disappearing / Don’t cry for me.” Later, in the fast-driving “Good Bad Boy,” he does watch a young up-and-coming star being groomed by the pop machine’s marketing handlers: “You’re our kind of rebel / It’s your kind of time / ‘Cause everyone gets one chance / So scowl for the camera / But don’t howl at the moon / Be a good bad boy.” The focus of arranging for a trio keeps the melodies clear and uncluttered. And the musical touches, from the jazz-flavored stylings of “Invisible Man” and “The Uptown Train” (which draws strongly — maybe a bit too strongly — from “The ‘In’ Crowd,” not to mention a piano passage from Horace Silver’s 1955 jazz classic “Doodlin'”) to the hints of classic Philadelphia soul in “Wasted Time” and ‘70s pop in “Rush Across the Road” and “A Place in the Rain” (shades of Rundgren’s influence rubbing off on him), always seem just right. Rain shows that Jackson is still growing as an artist, working his way toward an accessible, pop-friendly style that’s still meaningful to him — just going ahead, looking over his shoulder. (Some early editions of the album include a DVD with three of the album’s songs recorded live, along with interviews, scenes from the Rain recording sessions, and Jackson’s personal guide to Berlin.)
Since Jackson’s departure from A&M, his recordings for that label have been anthologized repeatedly on both sides of the Atlantic. (While most of his original albums have gone out of print.) The American release Steppin’ Out: The Very Best of Joe Jackson is the most comprehensive collection available, gathering 38 songs onto two CDs. It includes “The Harder They Come” and “Enough Is Not Enough” (a finished song from the Beat Crazy sessions, later used as a B-side) and tacks on a couple selections from Laughter & Lust and one each from Night Music and Night and Day II. (Caveat emptor: The earlier British release of the same title is a single disc with 15 songs.) The UK releases Tonight & Forever and Gold are similar two-disc compilations; both sets stop at Blaze of Glory, but Gold at least includes “Tilt” from The Harder They Come. The Ultimate Collection spreads a narrower, somewhat oddly selected overview across two CDs, but adds Mike’s Murder in its entirety as a bonus disc. (Memo to Universal: Tucker may not have the same cult mystique as Mike’s Murder, but since it’s out of print and pretty high-caliber in its own right, perhaps you could find some way to reissue it, too?) Greatest Hits, The Collection and Classic Joe Jackson are good single-disc compilations; 20th Century Masters and The Silver Spectrum Collection are skimpier.
Whether by accident or intent, Jackson has written a lot of his songs from a non-gender-specific viewpoint. This makes them remarkably open to interpretation, just as his melodic gifts make his work appeal to artists from a wide range of genres. (As of early 2010, Jackson’s songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Tori Amos, Anthrax, Buck-o-Nine, Goldfinger, Guttermouth, Mandy Moore and Sugar Ray.) The 14 female artists and female-fronted bands that perform on the 2004 tribute disc Different for Girls uncover layers of woman-sympathetic insight that many of Jackson’s fans may never have apprehended in his tunes. Elaine K underscores the loneliness and rejection implicit in “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” with a solo folk approach. Fabulous Disaster rocks out faithfully on “Got the Time”; Beth Thornley strips the same song down, singing the lyric over acoustic guitar and funky keyboard underpinnings, emphasizing the weariness that waits at the end of the busy day. Essra Mohawk recasts “Steppin’ Out” with a light, frisky ska rhythm; Whitney McCray performs “Breakin’ Us in Two” as a sad waltz. Maxine Young turns “It’s Different for Girls” into blissful dream-pop. Idle Mirth brings the guitar noise to “Another World” while turning the melody inside out; the result is something that My Bloody Valentine fans would admire. (“I stepped into another world,” indeed.) Alice Lee’s rendition of “Sea of Secrets” makes it sound like the best hit single Sheryl Crow never had. darkblueworld has the last word with its version of “Take It Like a Man,” alternating trip-hop verses with a guitar-heavy chorus. Track after track, Different for Girls shows that when it comes to writing songs with an unforced yet intuitive grasp of the feminine point of view, Joe Jackson is the man.