Jackson continues to offer his audience complex bites of musical goodness.
Joe Jackson has never repeated himself. Even a cursory glance at his storied discography reveals that. Even his New Wave era really only lasted one full album, the exquisite 1979 Look Sharp! and one finds it difficult to reconcile the complicated balladry of “Fools in Love” with the macho pseudo punk of “Got the Time.” Within two years of that, he was going on about his love of jump jive songs (Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive) and within one calendar year of that he’d cast himself as a latter-day Cole Porter with Night and Day. Say what you will about David Bowie’s proclivity for reinventing himself, but Jackson slipped just about as quickly and often with greater stealth and considerably more ease.
In more recent times, he’s worked in the classical idiom and paid tribute to Duke Ellington. If the results weren’t always as exhilarating for some critics and fans, Jackson’s remained true to a vision throughout and his chameleon abilities remain admirable. They’re on full display via his latest, Fool, an album that doesn’t necessarily adhere to one genre or conceptual focal point but which puts on display the many faces of Joe Jackson. What remains consistent, though, is his ability to craft fine and sophisticated melodies, find nuanced arrangements and get us to consider that he may be the smartest songsmith of his generation.
The eight songs which comprise the album are stylistically varied, starting with the thrumming piano number “Big Black Cloud,” with obtuse imagery (a fez, riding a lawnmower to Tampa Bay), a melody that forebodes something wicked on the horizon, blazing heavy metal-style guitars (something Jackson seems to have favored in recent years) and big, booming drums. What is he trying to say here? It’s never exactly clear. There’s something about the malaise of the zeitgeist, the precarity of late capitalism and an angst that burns inside us all. Like much of this album, it’s a piece that seems better suited to the stage than the stereo. It’s big, dramatic and begging to be placed in a larger context.
The same may be said for jazz-flavored “Strange Land,” a moody and complex moment that stands among Jackson’s finest, cast in the mold of those Porter standards he has an unabashed love of, albeit cast in thoroughly contemporary clothes. One can easily imagine one of the better jazz ensembles of our time rendering this as an instrumental and wowing audiences by taking high-flying improvisational strides.
The closing “Alchemy” comes close in this regard too, but it’s a far more complex beast, one that requires us to return to it multiple times and probe said complexities until we find some form of faint satisfaction. As with many Jackson pieces, this seems to be one that begs for being performed by a female vocalist. Not that the author doesn’t portray the material convincingly but that it reaches for vocal flourishes not in the man’s present range.
There are hints of the early punk/New Wave maven here, such as “Fabulously Absolute,” though the anger doesn’t feel like the misdirected kind of youth as much as it feels like the guided, well-justified kind that comes with advancing years. “Dave” is almost a pop hit in its simplicity, its deceptively simple rhymes and mysterious character study. “Friend Better” sounds like it could have been taken from the same sessions as Look Sharp!, the man’s voice sounding as youthful as it ever has.
In short, Jackson continues to offer his audience complex bites of musical goodness, not all of them immediately easy to penetrate but each of them worthy of our prolonged attention and, ultimately, of greater accolades than we can first greet them with. One believes that Fool’s reputation will grow with time and that, at some point, we’ll all be gazing at think pieces about what we missed the first go around.