It’s impossible not to wonder if Stevie Jackson’s long-in-coming solo debut is what Belle and Sebastian would sound like in an alternate reality without Stuart Murdoch, as hard as it is to imagine the beloved pop collective without its inimitable frontman. Maybe (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson should be appreciated on its own terms, but there’s a temptation, subconscious or not, to think of it as an opportunity to take stock of Jackson’s capabilities and compare them to Murdoch’s prodigious talents. On the one hand, the album is a reminder that it’s often easy to underestimate Jackson’s contributions to Belle and Sebastian’s success, not just musically, but also in the way he took on many of the gladhanding tasks that Murdoch shied away from as the outfit was beginning to take off. On the other hand, (I Can’t Get No) is ultimately a pleasant but modest outing that proves that there’s some intangible quality beyond having chops that separates a competent songwriter from something more than that.
That (I Can’t Get No) never strays too far from a B&S aesthetic—and also enlists much of the band’s personnel—underscores the “what if” nature of the project, only pointing out Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses as an artist. What (I Can’t Get No) confirms, above all, is how proficient a player and arranger Jackson is, especially since he wears so many hats on this effort. Musically speaking, Jackson runs through a gamut of styles ably and seamlessly, from the zingy indie soul of “Just, Just So to the Point” to the gentle, curlicuing oldies tones of “Richie Now”. Whether he’s creating an easygoing, jaunty mood with “Dead Man’s Fall” or conveying a sensitive side with some introspective folkie picking on “Bird’s Eye View”, Jackson really takes advantage of the resources available to him, making the side project feel rich and fully fleshed out.
The one thing that Jackson gains from going it alone is that he’s able to let loose a little more outside the constraints of Belle and Sebastian’s established working arrangements. With its blasts of organ and a rip-roaring guitar solo, the rambunctious ditty “Try Me” is a crowd-pleaser, mussing up B&S’s immaculate sound with good spirits and high energy. Better yet is the holy rollin’ orchestral-pop of “Man of God”, which layers piano, a touch of strings, and some good-natured background singing on top of Jackson’s most soulful croon, feeling immediate and grand at the same time. What could be an easy fit on a deluxe reissue of B&S’s The Life Pursuit, “Man of Work” stands on par with Jackson’s best work for his day job, canonical B&S pieces like “Seymour Stein” and “Jonathan David”.
If only Jackson could express himself in his lyrics as naturally and consistently as he does through his music: While Jackson speaks volumes for himself with an acoustic guitar, his words, unfortunately, fail him too often. Making himself out to be the boy done wrong again—and again—on (I Can’t Get No), many of Jackson’s odes to star-crossed love feel ham-fisted, thanks to overwrought scenarios that seem a little too comfortable with the frustrations of unrequited love. As the title of the opener suggests, “Pure of Heart” casts Jackson as a hopeless romantic, delivering a thesis statement that sets a precious and overly earnest tone to the album. When Jackson sings, “Dreaming of fame and all its glory / The main thing I longed for was love,” it comes off like a grass-is-greener complaint that strikes the wrong chord because he actually has achieved fame and all its glory, by most measures. While it’s not that you would accuse Jackson of being disingenuous or inauthentic in his woe-is-me love songs, his schtick as the wallflower on tracks like “Where Do All the Good Girls Go?” and “Feel the Morning” is too twee to get you to relate. After a while, (I Can’t Get No) becomes a broken record telling the same story, like when Jackson follows up his dithering about whether to ring up his dream girl on “Telephone Song” (“With an action I could be interrupting her time / If pick up the phone and get her on the line”) by getting cold feet about emailing a friend that he wants to be more than a friend on “Press Send” (“I can’t believe the way I feel / I electronically conceal / All the feelings in my head”).
When he’s not bemoaning his love life—or, rather, the lack thereof—with his heart on his sleeve, Jackson tends to get tangled up by hard-to-follow analogies and obscure allusions that make you wonder whether he’s hiding his true feelings or just meandering off topic. Even some of the album’s best offerings suffer when it’s unclear where Jackson’s narratives are headed, though you know the ending is going to be bad. The slinky R&B stylings of “Just, Just So to the Point” might be alluring enough, but Jackson’s awkward vocals undercut the smooth operator appeal to it, as his romantic failings are dressed up in odd, wordy references, like lines namechecking Apollo 13—it’s hard to play it cool with lines like, “Houston, we don’t have a problem / Tom Hanks, no thanks / To the promise of a better world.” And as engaging as “Try Me” is, it too gets a bit tripped by Jackson’s passive-aggressive demeanor, as he interchanges his slow-played moves with head-scratching non-sequiturs. Most puzzling of all is “Kurosawa”, which revolves around a convoluted allegory about pigeons that never makes clear the moral of the story or even to what it’s referring.
Overall, Stevie Jackson should get credit for putting in the solid effort you would expect him to on (I Can’t Get No). If anything, it’s not that Jackson doesn’t try hard to impress, but that he tries too hard to on the record. Unfortunately, though, the word that’s replaced in the title of the album is also what’s missing from (I Can’t Get No): satisfaction.