The millennium is truly at hand: Joe Jackson has put out an album I don’t love. You have to understand the magnitude of this. Ever since hearing Jackson’s first album, Look Sharp in a used record store in San Francisco and receiving the Live 1980-1986 album in as a Christmas present in 1988, I have been a fan. Placing Jackson in that rare category of artists whose new albums are must-haves upon release. He has never failed to repay the investment of my money and/or listening time. Until now.
This is a sequel to the 1982 album Night and Day that was one of Jackson’s most successful and one of which he is most proud. Meant to be a look at New York life, this album contains no songs that are likely to become the Jackson fan classics that “Real Men,” “A Slow Song,” “Breaking Us in Two,” or “Steppin’ Out” (which is quoted twice on this record) have, from the original. Nor is it probable that they will enjoy the pop success of the last two songs.
This is the third album Jackson has released in less than a year (his book, A Cure for Gravity was published during the same period, and he toured bookshops to promote it). There’s no doubt in my mind that it is the worst he has recorded in over 15 years, and quite possibly the worst of his career. It would be arrogantly presumptuous of me to state that he was burnt out after so much activity and I will not do so. I will merely suggest it as a possibility, as I try hard to understand a year in which the top album I’ve heard so far is a guitar showcase (The Mermen) and in which the usually exquisite Jackson releases the biggest disappointment.
Programmed cymbals reminiscent of those used on “Angel” from the masterful Heaven & Hell run through the album, joining the songs together into a continuous whole, a favorite trick of Jackson’s. But the whole is less than the sum of the parts and the parts are even less than that. “Hell of a Town” reuses a bass line from “No Pasaran” on Will Power, Jackson’s first orchestral album, which was released in 1987. Doing nothing more with it than marry it to a lyrical nod to the classic Comden/Green/Bernstein tune from On the Town. Though the melody of “Stranger Than You” does linger in the mind, the song as recorded suffers from an extremely hollow programmed drum sound. Where was Gary Burke (drummer on previous Jackson projects) when Jackson needed him? The vocals by Jackson and Dale DeVere (described as Jackson’s discovery, a drag queen singer) on “Glamour and Pain” have something of Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant about them. Since I am almost as big a fan of Pet Shop Boys as I am of Jackson’s (they’re in that same rare category), you might think this combination would go a long way. You would be wrong. The song does have a dreamy melody, and musically it recalls the jazzy chords of Double (“The Captain of Her Heart”) at the outset, but anchors them to a shamefully overused bass line.
“Dear Mom” has one of Jackson’s worst melodies and keyboard sounds similar to those on the fine Night Music collection of 1994. “Stay” may dream of joining the list of classic Jackson ballads (“One to One,” “The Bridge,” and the piano/keyboard Nocturnes to name but a few), but it doesn’t even approach Thomas Dolby. Who is a unique and wonderful music maker in his own right, but is no Jackson at his best.
Rather than “Steppin’ Out,” this album feels like a giant step back; containing elements of Jackson’s older, superior works without the sense that he has absorbed them and taken them somewhere new. Instead it sounds like the musical equivalent of his rummaging through his drawers, making a pile of the papers he finds there and calling it origami. Summer in the City, Jackson’s live album of songs rearranged for trio released earlier this year wasn’t a stretch either, but likable in part because of it’s very lack of airs-the gigs recorded were described as “just for the hell of it” affairs, after all.
The songs here sound simple — self consciously, gracelessly so, without the “should have been hits” quality of Jackson’s last pop-song album, Laughter & Lust, or the maturity of his “post-pop” projects. It’s like watching an Olympic gymnast at play in a park on bars which he has clearly outgrown. It may be restful for him, but since he’s charged admission, as an audience member you can’t help but be overwhelmed with one thought: You can do better than this!
Lyrically the listener fares no more excellently. It is distressing to think that the man who wrote the likes of “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” “Flying” and “Fugue 2/Song of Daedalus,” which are full of quotable lines, is now responsible for such trite messages as “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not out to get you.” To have included this line once as a throwaway in one verse would be bad enough; Jackson makes it a title (“Just Because”) and repeats it ad nauseam. An act of willful banality such as I have not heard since the glory days of Edie Brickell (“What I am is what I am, are you what you are, or what?”). And this is Joe Jackson, for god’s sake!
As almost completely played and sung by Jackson on piano, synth basses and drum machines, this album has a distinctly cheesy feel throughout. I shake my head in disbelief to have written that line about a Joe Jackson album, but there it is. Graham Maby makes an indistinguishable contribution on bass and Sue Hadjopoulos joins on percussion, and both are denied the space to exhibit the barest traces of their extraordinary talents. For which Jackson should be fined for wasting natural resources. Why did he not go into the studio with a full band? They might not have helped flesh out the thin material here, but they couldn’t have hurt it. Almost all the material from the first Night and Day album is better when played and sung live, and that’s likely to occur here too (Jackson is currently planning an international tour). Though of course the earlier songs were more substantive to begin with…When you have access to players like Maby, Burke and Hadjopoulos (and Jackson certainly knows how good they are) it’s illogical not to take every chance to make use of them.
The album also features a string quartet calling themselves ETHEL. Although they’re not put in the service of the best songs Jackson has ever written, they are the best thing about the record, and by more than default. Jackson has long had a knack for writing strong string arrangements for his songs, and this album is no exception. They mix well with the programmed drum treatments, and I would rather have listened to an album of percussion with strings than this one. I hope Jackson will continue to work with this quartet on future, it is to be hoped better projects. Besides DeVere, Marianne Faithful and one Sussan Deyhim perform vocals on “Love Got Lost” and “Why” respectively. The best that can be said about these songs is that they are inoffensive. But it’s mostly all Jackson, whose voice is not in the happiest of shape. It’s never been the strongest feature of any of his records, which is why he began working with guest vocalists, but in the past it’s been perfectly suited to both the classic songs and many of his excellent “post-pop” compositions, not here.
Jackson has an established penchant for confounding audiences at every turn. 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. It was probably inevitable that he should eventually follow his muse down a path that loses even longtime fans like myself.