"HERE'S A LITTLE TUNE about the paranoias of modern society." That's how Joe Jackson introduced "Cancer" a song on his new album Night and Day, at a concert a couple of weeks ago. He might as well have been talking about all of his new songs. The tunes on this album splendidly scrutinize everything that bothers this angry and cynical British musician.
Jackson has always been sardonic and strident as a musician and a social critic. He was one of those feisty, harsh rockers that rode the New Wave from England to the States a few years ago. Singing tunes like "I'm the Man." "On Your Radio," and "Sunday Papers," he presented himself in an impassioned, rebellious rock and roll style.
He sang convincingly about the alienating effects of the cosmopolitan world, about hapless relationships and the paradoxes and perplexities of the urban landscape. He spilled his bitter criticisms of the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of society all over his albums. The music was harsh, the vocals were loud; the lyrics were biting.
But unlike most of his late '70s counterparts, Jackson has moved beyond the New Wave angry-young-man style. He recently denied being a rock and roller at all. He may be right. He may be more. Like Elvis Costello--a comparison which hounded him for years--Jackson has shown a depth and diversity of musical talent. He has experimented with old forms and concocted new ones. He marked his departure from pure New Wave with products like the reggae-in-spired Beat Crazy and Jumpin' Jive, a collection of '40s-style swing tunes. While bands like The Clash continue to scream and bang their ideas into their music, Jackson has gradually found mellower and musically richer ideas to get his message across.
In Night and Day, Jackson has toned down the music, but the message becomes more lucid. Jackson presents himself as an inspired and controlled artist. No longer does he seem to try to intimidate. A man of many guises, he now sometimes finds his ardent sentimentalism hard to suppress and discards his formerly steadfast bitterness. In Night and Day, Jackson has combined his many sides to produce his most entertaining, musically satisfying and emotionally gratifying work to date.
THE ALBUM'S COVER-- a line drawing of Jackson at a grand piano, with a dark New York skyline in the background--tells much of the story. Jackson wrote and produced the album in New York, following a tradition of British fascination with the city shared by the likes of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The effect of this extended stop in New York's is evident in vivid songs about paranoid street walkers, sexual deviants and smiling snipers.
But all is not dark and gruesome in Jackson's journey through a night and day in the big city. The music itself is for the most part an upbeat and cheerful combination of Puerto Rican salsa rhythms, Jackson's jazzy piano overdubs, and some xylophone riffs like the catchy jingle that percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos repeats throughout the hit single "Steppin' Out."
And Jackson does temper his sometimes morbid accounts ("Someone could smile at me then/shake my hand then gun me down") with sprinkled humorous comments, often in background harmonies or spoken asides. He does this most effectively in "T.V. Age," a Talking Heads-style song about modern-day peoploids living their lives in front of the tube. Jackson cries:
You know the force has got a lot of power--but what makes
you think it gives a shit about you...who are you anyway?
The Joe Jackson of Night and Day comes across as a more mature and accomplished musician. Some will surely belittle his new, less harsh approach as an act of compromise. Surely others will focus their attention on the shades of mainline pop amid the bells and synthesizers. For the most part, though, this is not pop, but Jackson's unique blend of traditional jazz and some more contemporary styles. But often he does smack a bit too sentimental. Songs like the sappy, emotional "Breaking Us In Two" ("They say two hearts should beat as one for us...") prove a bit hard to swallow for those who rocked to and rejoiced in "Happy Loving Couples (ain't no friends of mine)." We're just not sure when to take Jackson seriously. And maybe Jackson isn't sure, either. He constantly provides us with twisted paradoxes like "Cancer," an upbeat tune with chilling lyrics: "Everything causes Cancer/There's no cure, there's no answer."
BUT JACKSON really just plays with our minds--confusing us and setting up glaring contrasts to make his point. He does this most effectively in a wonderfully emotional song about "Real Men"--a group for whom he has little affection. ("You know why real men like to hunt?" Jackson asked the crowd at a recent concert. "Because they can't stand the thought that anything in the woods has a bigger dick than they do!") The song stresses modern society's utter confusion about sex roles. Jackson offers no conclusion; he simply communicates a sort of desperation about who is who. "If there's war between the sexes then there'll be no people left," he resolves.
Jackson drives all of this home--the emotion and the music and the passion--with the devastating "Slow Song." Singing a slow and impassioned plea to a nightclub disc jockey to "play us a slow song," he decries those who bluntly destroy the heart and soul of music with their harsh, indelicate approach. "Am I the only one," he asks.
To want a strong and silent sound
To pick me up and undress me
to lay me down and caress me
Joe Jackson isn't the only one pleading for a break from the harshness of leftover New Wavers. And that's why the public is embracing Night and Day, a refreshing album carving out yet another individual style for the angry young man who grew up. "In some people's hands," he croons in "Slow Song." "[music] becomes a savage beast." Not in Joe Jackson's.