There’s a price to pay for being a Joe Jackson fan. You fall in love with a masterpiece like 1982’s Night and Day – and then you have to maintain your allegiance through Body and Soul (1984) and Big World (1986) as Joe wanders further and further from the very idea of rock music. He moves out on you completely in the 1990s to shack up with classical music and film scores — good ones, mind you, but you’re left to raise the kids on your own. Then he shows up on your doorstep again in 2003 with Volume 4, and you forgive him everything.
Naturally, you’re nervous about his next move.
I needn’t have worried. Rain, released this past January, is all I’ve ever loved about Joe Jackson and more; it’s a searing, heart-wrenching examination of relationships gone wrong and the persistent hunger to love and be loved. This isn't just a great Joe Jackson album; it's a great album period — and it's still growing on me.
Yes, Jackson’s still flirting with Latin and jazz rhythms, but he confidently yokes them into an urban dance beat – and, now that he’s living in Berlin, do I detect a touch of Bertolt Brecht as well? The sound is lean, edgy, and meaningful, with Jackson working once again in a trio with bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton. All the stars are in alignment.
Like a voice crying in the wilderness, Jackson starts out with a rueful anthem of alienation, “Invisible Man” – “Heeeeyyyy, can you hear me now? / As I fade away” – which sets us up perfectly for “Too Tough,” the latest installment in his ongoing dissection of gender stereotypes. (“I’m like a diva with a tragic touch,” he admits warily, refusing to become “too tough to fall in love.”)
The theme of mind-control and political correctness runs through three spiky satiric numbers, “Citizen Sane,” “King Pleasure Time,” and “Good Bad Boy,” each darker than the last. The urgent hammering of Jackson’s piano turns downright epileptic by the time he gets to the minor riffs of “Good Bad Boy.”
But those tracks serve mostly as entre’acts for the relationship songs that thread through them. Like “Too Tough,” the rueful “Wasted Time” retorts to a hurtful lover “Maybe I should be sorry / For wasting your time” without sounding one bit sorry. The jazzy interlude of “Uptown Train” has Joe’s hard-edged falsetto hopping all over a coded song about opting for romantic alternatives. But the album’s high point for me has got to be “Solo (So Low),” an unflinching plunge into the depths of melancholy. It’s just Jackson, his classical piano technique, and a shattering tone poem visiting a dark night of the soul. I won’t say more; you’ve got to hear this mournful beauty for yourself.
And then – a genius move – Jackson follows that up with the most traditional pop song on the album, “Rush Across the Road,” a buoyant tune about discovering an old girlfriend. When you least expect it, an upbeat number like this can rescue anybody from the depths of self-pity. He wraps up the whole package with “A Place in the Rain,” a waltzing hymn to contented coupling (“It’s amazing what lovers can do / With just a kiss and a glass of champagne”) and a perfect counterbalance to that alienated opening.
I just love a happy ending.
These are of course songs that should be heard live – intensely personal, savage with passion, shrewd and smart. Joe’s currently touring with the trio, and given the musicianship of these three guys, the live performances will not disappoint. If the shows aren’t all sold out (I know the ones in New York went in a nanosecond), you’d be well advised to get yourself a ticket.