This retrospective is the most complete look at Joe Jackson’s songwriting currently available, but it is not, unfortunately, the one that I would recommend. Jackson has an established penchant for confounding audiences at every turn. First coming into prominence in the “new wave” era with the hit “Is She Really Going Out With Him”, his influences have always been diverse. He broke up his first band to go after his musical interests wherever they took him, eventually going orchestral, recording almost all-solo albums of Nocturnes and song cycles about the seven deadly sins. Though the songs on Steppin’ Out have been selected from all but four of Jackson’s albums from the past quarter century, the choices are sometimes unfortunate. Serious longtime fans will be happy to have the previously rare cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”, but those seeking a concise introduction to his work are advised to start elsewhere. Fortunately this is not difficult. As I write this there are no fewer than 10 (counting live albums and imports) collections of Jackson’s work extant. I’ve chosen three as better examples, to my mind, of Jackson’s exceptional ability.
Since Jackson says, quite rightly, in the liner notes for Live 1980-86, that he “and every band I’ve had, have always been better live”, you could do far worse than to start with that collection if you have a casual interest in Jackson, say you know “Is She Really” and little else. If you want to get the songs as you hear them on the radio, I recommend the 1996 Greatest Hits collection, which wisely replaces the recording of “Slow Song” from the 1982 Night & Day album with the infinitely superior live version, a choice that would have been preferable here. Similarly, the matured version of “Hometown” on last year’s Summer in the City: Live in New York should have been included on Steppin’ Out over the weaker original.
Any two or even one of the above retrospectives would be a more satisfactory introduction to Jackson’s music. You’ll be missing much of Jackson’s last 12 years of work but, apart from the should-have-had-hits Laughter & Lust, these are best heard as whole works, not extracts. The new collection features “The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy”, from Night Music, as a nod to the “post-pop” years. It’s one of the better songs on that album, but again best heard alongside its siblings. Last year’s nadir of Jackson’s recording career, the misstep Night & Day 2, is represented by “Stranger Than You”, which remains a melody that does linger in one’s mind tied to a lyric that can’t leave fast enough.
If Jackson’s career were a city, a compilation like this would be the equivalent of seeing it from a sightseeing bus. You can catch glimpses here or there of its beauty, but if you really want to understand and appreciate it you have to get off, wander around and take your time getting to know it a little.
// Notes from the Road
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