Great Balls of Fire
Joe Jackson has been having his anxiety attacks engraved in wax over a decade; Blaze of Glory, his latest release, is the eleventh in a long line of Jackson neuroses, and it shows--for better and for worse.
Blaze of Glory
By Joe Jackson 1989
The good news is that Joe Jackson has, by this time, developed into a nearly flawless songwriter. His 1979 debut album Look Sharp had few bad cuts, and since then Jackson has consistently experimented with standard pop forms and non-pop genres--among them big-band swing, cool jazz, salsa and orchestral music. Eleven albums later he presents us with pop music that almost guarantees an eclectic, hookladen album--which Jackson does deliver.
The bad news is that a facile Joe seems to preclude an emotional, sincere Joe. Maybe the alienated, angry young man routine is wearing thin for him; maybe these particular tunes don't rouse him to an emotional commitment. Whatever the reason, when Jackson stepped into the studio to record Blaze of Glory, he left his soul at home. The resulting LP is strangely disappointing; it offers twelve eminently listenable tunes by a masterful songwriter who, unfortunately, seems to have set himself on cruise control and shortchanged his own work.
Jackson announces in the liner notes that each side of Blaze of Glory is meant to be listened to continuously, "as if it were a song cycle." The operative verb here is "as if it were," because no matter what Jackson says, removing the spaces from in between songs does not a song cycle make. Take, for instance, the opener, "Tomorrow's World." It begins promisingly, with breathy vocals sitting side-saddle on a set of naked guitar arpeggios, driven by an obsessive pattern and punctuated by an incredibly satsifying bass drum. Particularly effective, too, are a series of abrupt changes in volume. But just when everything is going well, Jackson screws up the chorus, bigtime in that it destroys the mood of everything that precedes it. The entire listening experience is marred by the constant fear that the chorus is going to come back and interrupt the rest of the song.
"Tomorrow's World" turns into "Me and You (Against the World)," a terrific horn-driven rocker that ends each verse with a dizzily assymetric tag line. Flawless, and followed by "Down to London," which would also be perfect except for the eerie similarity between its Latin American piano figure and that of Carlos Santana's "Evil Ways." This becomes a tragic flaw; the combination of tamborine, piano, and Motown harmonica, which would otherwise be irresistable, is undercut by one's idle speculation as to how Jackson's lawyer will deal with the imminent plagiarism suit.
"Sentimental Thing" is a lovely ballad, in which Jackson wisely plays with lyrical lines of unequal lengths and correspondingly non-correspondent meters. The instrumental bridge is a string quartet; the coda is also counched in lush strings, with Askew contributing a haunting, wordless "Madame Butterfly" type aria. This segues into an instrumental, "Acropolis Now," which begins promisingly as a hybrid between '80s rock and Greek folk guitar, but it begins to maunder soon after and degenerates into a fairly close approximation of a jam session by a forgotten, early '70s band. The side closes with the title track, which reverses the problems of the opening cut; a suitably anthemic chorus is surrounded by a song about a "young boy" named "Johnny" who could "make the young girls cry."
Side Two opens with "Rant and Rave," a tempo-shifter with fun horn charts and fascinating rhythms; this is followed by "Nineteen Forever," another anthemic track in the "Blaze of Glory" mode and about as interesting. "The Best I Can Do" is a ballad that suffers by comparison with its Side 1 counterpart, largely because it's melody becomes monotonous after the requisite three or four repetitions.
"Evil Empire" is yet another song sunk by ridiculous lyrics. One might guess from the title that Jackson is going to take a swipe at Reagan-style reactionism, but the theme turns out to rather indistinguishable. The music, however--a sort of country two-step, replete with fretless bass--is catchy.
"Discipline" is reminiscent of the Eurythmics' sound, with a snapping drum machine and atonal keyboard arpeggios; Askew does her best Annie Lennox imitation, but for some reason Jackson interrupts midway through with a completely out-of-place, easy-listening R&B style verse.
The overall impression, then, is of luminous high points interspersed with perplexing gaffes. The spots where Jackson falters are not, however, indications of poor musicianship or songwriting; rather, they seem to be errors of judgment, or lapses in commitment to his ideas. Even mediocre Joe Jackson is better then most of the pop music out there, however, and the transcendent moments on Blaze of Glory--which far outnumber the lulls--make the album a worthwhile listen.