Thankfully, pop music is full of chameleons, musicians who surprise fans by donning various hats over years of work. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Madonna have extended the range of pleasure we can derive from a pop song by daring to mutate the three-minute rock song like it was Silly Putty.
Joe Jackson emerged in 1979 with a “New Wave” debut album. Look Sharp harnessed the pop energy of the moment. The explosion of punk had just flattened the rock landscape, and there was suddenly a bracing new kind of pop song in the air: more direct, simpler, more urgent, audaciously tuneful. Jackson seemed to fall in with a pair of British predecessors — Graham Parker and Elvis Costello — who snarled with punk energy and not a little bit of anger but who also had traditional musical chops.
Just as Costello turned out to be a complex musician sharing more with Burt Bacharach than Rat Scabies, Jackson even more quickly revealed himself to be adroit and eclectic. Over the course of five albums in four years, Jackson hop-scotched from pulsing New Wave anger (Look Sharp and I’m the Man,1979) to reggae-infused rock (Beat Crazy, 1980) to jump blues and swing (Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive,1981) to Latin-tinged pop (the smash from 1982, Night and Day). It was an astonishing run of recordings — both daring in range and satisfying as pop songcraft. The 1984 record Body and Soul attempted to be a summative statement, perhaps, and contained a hit single that may have crystallized the Joe Jackson Dilemma: “You Can’t Get What You Want (Until You Know What You Want)”.
In the coming years, Jackson would continue to experiment and grow — composing song cycles, classical music, a “symphony” for a ten-piece band including Terence Blanchard and Steve Vai. He covered Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and Steely Dan. But since 2000, Jackson has seen fit to focus more intently on his core strength: writing and playing thumping little pop gems that consolidate his various influences into a gleaming amalgam. Reuniting his Look Sharp band in various ways, Jackson sounds less like an old rocker trying to cash in on fan affection for the Good Ol’ Days than a mature artist who — perhaps — was more consistent over the years than we all realized.
Rain is a jubilant and fresh pop record for Jackson’s piano trio — supported by longtime bandmates Graham Maby on bass and Dave Houghton on drums. But this is not a faux jazz record or a genre exercise. It just happens to be a strong rock album without a guitar, a pop record that harnesses some fancy harmonies, sure, but also blows straight at you with hooks, beats, and thumping basslines. Jackson’s voice coos and snarls, and his songs seduce and complain. It’s well-crafted certainly, but it also punches its weight, making the piano pop of folks like Ben Folks and Ben Kweller seem a little wimpy. And that’s a good thing.
“Invisible Man” is a whack of an opener, coming out with a strong series of jazz chords that sound for all the world like the opening of Steely Dan’s “Your Gold Teeth II.” It’s a nervy move to invoke the much-derided fussy-rockers, but this is what Jackson does so well throughout Rain — he marries pop power to a kind of sophistication. Throughout these quick ten songs, there are enough strong melodies for three albums by any other rocker. Jackson somehow gets to invoke his hero Gershwin without seeming like some old fogey.
The balance of these all-new songs, however, strongly rocking. “Citizen Sane” has a lyric that looks at getting clean and normal with genuine unease, and the music pounds appropriately. “King Pleasure Time” has a souped-up Motown bassline and a lyric about a gloriously predatory figure who wants you to party whether you like it not. “Good Bad Boy” is even more urgent, with Houghton driving the whole think on his toms. But even on these tunes, Jackson can hardly resist a harmonically contrasting release. Without invoking any of the cheesy sentimentality of a Billy Joel song, for instance, Jackson still gets away with being a pianist who simply enjoys a sweet chord.
On some other tracks, Jackson is more purely melodic. “Rush Across the Road” may be catchiest tune in Jackson’s book, bar none. A story of not giving up on a lost love, the song continually bursts into discovery, with a Jackson vocal that combines his sneer with a purer kind of optimism. It’s a golden song. “Waste of Time” is nearly as strong, a minor key lament of lost love that effectively uses Jackson’s easy falsetto and the casual harmonizing between the band members. “The Uptown Train” strikes a more overtly swinging soul-jazz groove (again evoking Jackson’s friends Becker/Fagen as well as the Ramsey Lewis Trio) that puts the falsetto in the foreground. These tunes are not only listenable, they are extremely relistenable.
If there is small misstep on Rain it might be ” Solo (So Low)”, where Jackson accompanies himself alone and indulges his jones for classical playing. It’s a beautiful melody, but it feels misplaced on this record or maybe just placed in the wrong pianist context — the accompaniment seems like faux-Chopin rather than authentic Jackson. The package also comes with a fairly inconsequential DVD: a live recording of three of these great songs, and “making of” movie, some interviews with the trio, and a “Joe Jackson Guide to Berlin”. Jackson moved to Berlin at the start of 2007 and Rain was recorded there.
You might be tempted to make something of the Berlin connection here, but the interview on the DVD suggests otherwise. Rain is a less a New Start for a great pop tunesmith than it is a continuation and a honing of that artist’s craft. These are mature songs that are nonetheless great fun to hear. These are sophisticated compositions that happily use the format of rock songs. Rain is just a great pop record — pulsing and poetic and melodic in all the right ways.
It won’t be topping any charts, of course, as it uses somewhat old-fashioned tools to create songs that could have been on the radio decades ago. But that shouldn’t diminish their pleasure at all. For those who claim that artists today simply don’t write great songs any more, Rain is a conclusive cross-examination. Ten very good to great songs, stamped with the signature of a musician who knows what he is about. That, kids, is what we used to call an “album”, and this is a very fine one indeed.