Before Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and The Jam, my fave angry young man of the new wave era was Joe Jackson. Look Sharp! and I’m the Man, his first two albums from 1978 and 1979, were flawless poprock. “Is She Really Going Out With Him” was a masterpiece of his spare approach to instrumentation and arrangement. Though Jackson was primarily a pianist, these records were guitar-strong, but not in an endless 1970s guitar solo sort of way. Instead Jackson put the rhythm guitar back in charge, just as the Beatles and other sixties melodic bands had done. I segued into Jackson’s more keyboard-based work in the 1980s without missing a beat, drawn in by the distinctive emotional depth of Jackson’s work compared to the other angry young men. While Costello and Parker told you about their pain, Jackson somehow let you feel it. As a young gay man in 1982, his “Real Men,” a song tackling the contradictions of gay identity, really hit home with me. And it was pretty brave to put out the song in such a homophobic time. As a result, Night and Day (1982) and Body and Soul (1984) dominated my turntable throughout the mid-1980s. I even got to see him on the Body and Soul and Big World tours when he came to Vancouver.
But with Big World (1986) I started to drift from Joe Jackson’s orbit. I just didn’t connect with his subsequent recordings in the same way. Years passed before I realized I’d completely lost of track of his career. Sure, I dipped in now and then to see what was out but didn’t really give his new recordings a proper listen. And in retrospect, that was a mistake because every Joe Jackson record has more than a few pretty good poprock tracks, barring the classical (1987’s Will Power) and jazz (2012’s The Duke) releases which clearly had a different purpose. As I think his early hits period is pretty well known, this post will focus mostly on the post-1985 releases. I say ‘mostly’ because I can’t help offering up a few deep cut choices from the earlier recordings. There’s “Pretty Girls” and “Pretty Boys” from Look Sharp! and Beat Crazy, respectively. I always thought “On Your Radio” from I’m the Man was an overlooked should-be hit single. All of Jumpin’ Jive is pretty special but Jackson’s killer cover of Louis Armstrong’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” rocks! Night and Day put the piano up front in Jackson work, to stay, and his keyboard virtuosity shines on “Cancer.” Body and Soul is known for its unusual and delightful combination of salsa with jazz on most cuts but personally I love the cinematic feel of “The Verdict,” it’s ability to swoop down from big horns to more tender quiet moments. Speaking of movies, Jackson’s made some great contributions, particularly on Mike’s Murder and Pretty in Pink.
After all his previous experimentation and stylistic wandering, Big World was a return to poprock form for Jackson. Well, sort of. In another bid to do something different, he recorded the whole album live before a shushed audience! Here the standout track for me is undoubtedly “Forty Years,” a moving commentary on the uncertainty that preceded the end of the Cold War. The shifting geopolitical winds of the era animated 1989’s Blaze of Glory on tracks like “Evil Empire” but Jackson’s fascination with the emptiness of fame defined the title track and the peppy “Down to London.” 1991’s Laughter and Lust developed this further, taking aim at the shallowness of consumer-driven popular culture on “Hit Single” and “It’s All Too Much.”
Then, in a surprise move for an artist who’d always condemned nostalgia, Jackson decided to revisit his past glories with Night and Day II in 2000 and a reunion of his early band on Volume 4 in 2003. But true to form Jackson used both as platforms for more reinvention. N&DII was darker and more collaborative that the original (including duets with Susann Deyhim and Marianne Faithful, among others), with elements of techno added to the mix. Personally I like the light and airy “Stranger Than You.” Volume 4 is the band from Jackson’s first three albums but the sound is filtered a bit through all his subsequent influences. Love the dissonant jazzy feel of “Chrome” and jangle elements all over “Still Alive.”
Five years later Jackson returned with the very Night and Day-ish Rain in 2008. Songs like “Invisible Man” and “Rush Across the Road” really sound like a continuation of that project while “Too Tough” pops a killer hook out of its chorus like proverbial beautiful girl out of a birthday cake. Fans then had to wait seven years for Jackson’s next poprock project, 2015’s Fast Forward, his ode to great cities like New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and New Orleans. Here I’m partial to the expansive, horn-filled “Ode to Joy.” 2019’s Fool seemed like even more familiar territory with lots of piano-led tunes and biting commentary. “32 Kisses” immediately grabbed me as classic Jackson.
I deeply admired the combo of hooky songwriting and sardonic commentary that typified Jackson’s early career. His inability to sit still creatively or tolerate fake sentiment and rampant commercialism was just icing on an already attractive cake. Now I can see he kept playing to those strength later on. Of particular interest to me (given my day job teaching politics) is how Jackson has consistently put his politics front and centre, unlike say Graham Parker and Elvis Costello where it tends to be a bit more oblique. And while I haven’t always agreed with Jackson’s positions (particularly defending smoking) his attention to matters of class and working class identity mark him out as a truly original and principled artist. I’m delighted to be reunited with his work.
Connect with Joe Jackson on his official website.