Joe Jackson was one of the first new wave/proto-punk artists whose affinity for insurgence seemed to be matched only by his unapologetically melodic sensibilities. Like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, Jackson was a new kind of rock rebel, one who identified himself as an angry young man, but still had the good sense to stay within traditional parameters, perhaps to ensure his own hit potential and gain potential recognition from the mainstream. That determination paid off, thanks to a recording contract with A&M records and a string of hits that included “I’m the Man”, ”Sunday Papers”, “Is She Really Going Out With Him” and “It’s Different for Girls”, songs that offered a bemused reflection on male/female relationships from a macho point of view.
After establishing himself as a reliable rocker amongst the power pop elite, Jackson abandoned his namesake Joe Jackson Band and opted to take a more sophisticated turn, incorporating elements of jazz, and cabaret into his material. His 1982 album Night and Day, a Gershwin-esque exploration of New York nightlife and the hipster underground, represented his most artistically accomplished album to date, and it still stands out as a major milestone in his career. It yielded two more hits in “Steppin’ Out” and “Breaking Us in Two”, and helped define his new post pop sound. It was so successful in fact that nearly two decades later he produced a sequel, Night and Day II, an album that helped bring him back to prominence after years of dabbling in jazz, classical and conceptual theatrical realms, efforts that brought him critical acclaim but mostly managed to leave his early devotees less than enthused.
Notably, it’s been seven years since his last album of original material, The Duke, a freewheeling tribute to Duke Ellington. It was an admirable attempt, but that smooth, melodious sound that captivated fans early on has been sadly missing of late. Consequently Fast Forward, its title aside, is more of a deliberate rewind. The fact that it was recorded in four different cities — New York, New Orleans, Berlin and Amsterdam — gives the disc a conceptual feel, heightened by the consistency of Jackson’s eagerly effusive vocals and the songs’ sprawling tempos. With the exception of the set’s only real rockers, the edgy “See No Evil” — one for the few outside songs (in this case, written by Tom Verlaine) — and the driving “Neon Rain”, the album comes across as dreamy, delirious, fresh and refined. The title track, “If It Wasn’t For You”, “Junkie Diva”, and “A Little Smile” are classic Jackson in Night and Day mode, and though other songs in the set offer added elements via orchestra, brass and 14-year-old guest vocalist Mitchell Sinkon on one of the album’s most distinctive tracks “Far Away”, it’s Jackson’s jazzy piano stylings that underscore these sixteen songs, giving them the distinctive upscale polish that’s become Jackson’s stock in trade.
Fast Forward. is a glorious step back into the mainstream and a shining example of Jackson at his elegant, elegiac best. Both a look back and a solid move ahead, it could be considered among his best records yet.