Album Review: Joe Jackson – Fast Forward

If there was a pub quiz question, ‘name any song by Joe Jackson that got into the top 10 in the British music charts’ you’d probably struggle. There haven’t been many, only three in fact; ‘It’s Different for Girls’ in 1979, ‘Steppin’ Out’ in 1982, while ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’ – his first single – made  number 5 with its second attempt. Joe didn’t have any greater success in the US either, with only Steppin’ Out making number 6.

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And yet David Ian Jackson (the ‘Joe’ came from a perceived resemblance to the 1960s TV puppet character Joe 90) seems to have been around forever, and is generally regarded as a high class performer. The British born and classically trained musician, who subsequently moved to New York and then to Berlin, has recorded 19 studio albums and received five Grammy nominations. He has been through the mill musically, moving from new wave and punk to pop, jazz and salsa themes and then into the plain bizarre. The 1986 album Big World was a four sided album that had nothing on the fourth side except a label saying ‘there is no music on this side.’

Then he branched out into classical influences and won a Grammy in 2001 for ‘Symphony No.1’.  In the mid-2000s he quit New York for Berlin, ostensibly as a protest again smoking bans (against which he has campaigned by way of various pamphlets and a satirical song) and it was in Germany that he recorded his last studio album before now, Rain, in 2008, although he also recorded ‘The Duke’ in 2012, an interpretation of classics from Duke Ellington.

Along the way he has worked with numerous artists including Joan Armatrading, Suzanne Vega, Todd Rundgren and even William Shatner (Captain James T Kirk).

Released in 1999, his autobiography was mainly about growing up in a poor area of Portsmouth. He described life as a pop star as ‘hardly worth writing about.’

Now he has popped back up again with a fresh album of his own work, Fast Forward. Is this worth writing about you may ask? Well it’s certainly wordy. Jackson himself says it contains more words than he’s ever written before and you can tell that on the first – and title – track, which is a Shakespearean soliloquy set to music. At over six minutes you might feel the urge to fast forward it yourself, but don’t. The theme, as throughout the album, is present-day anxieties. Jackson pondered the potential of ‘fast-forwarding’ to the future “until I understand the age I’m in,” where he could look back on the present day and make some sort of sense of it all. Don’t we all? He compares and contrasts the opposite interpretations that characterise the times we live in: ‘you’ve never had it so good’ at one end of the spectrum, and ‘you’re doomed’ at the other. There’s a signature JJ piano opening, a strong melody and his voice is clear and youthful sounding (he’s 61 and white haired now – “we are young but getting old before our time” as he sang on Stepping Out). There’s a sharp observation about hipsters, “the old guys are bitching about the young guys growing beards.” The omens are good.

Track2 moves upbeat and is an homage to someone. “If it wasn’t for you… I’d be a sad bastard.” Better than being a fat one, I suppose. At least Joe didn’t eat all the pies.

Percussion to the fore in track 3, See No Evil, a cover of the Television song, which is quite a heavy rocker and almost a throwback to punk days, complete with guitar solo. A nice contrast with previous tracks.

Track 4 follows what is becoming a pattern by slowing things right down to ballad pace. King of The City reminisces about growing up in ‘a boring town.’ “The TV was on all day, with so much silence to chase away.” Now he/they (the A-Team, the White Knights) achieved the big dream and the bright lights, but he/they don’t see the stars anymore. Meanwhile the neighbours fight amongst themselves. Think Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs (any track) meets Neighbourhood #2 (Laika). You get the idea.

A Little Smile marks a return to more standard JJ fare and reintroduces the violin heard on the first track. The 16 tracks on the album (you get your money’s worth) were recorded in New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and New Orleans. A Little Smile is attributed to the Amsterdam sessions and the violinist is the celebrated American jazz violinist Regina Carter.

The ballad Far Away seems to tell the story of the leaving of England by a young Joe and has shades of Phantom of the Opera about it in parts. The opening section isn’t sung by Joe, unless he was wearing an extremely tight pair of underpants, but the actual singer, boy or girl, is not revealed. Could be Aled Jones I suppose. Lovely violin again.

Track 7, So you Say, again has a feel of a song from a musical. A fairly humdrum affair otherwise, apart from the middle eight, a flamenco-like piece.

Poor Thing is a fatalistic song. It starts bafflingly, about the “millions of people who could have existed but didn’t exist, but here we are,” and “the millions of planets and stars never listed on anyone’s list.” The basic tenet is we’re lucky to be here in this vast incomprehensible universe, and it’s a great life even if we have to endure tragedies every day so make the most of it. Very worthy, but we’ve been here before.

Junkie Diva could be anyone. “Take me to the river, let me watch you drown” (in alcohol?). “You didn’t get a chance to go on too long, you’re even better now you’ve gone.” Amy Whitehouse? Joplin? Hmm. Held together by a strong riff. Good track.

If I Could See Your Face, with its Middle Eastern theme, agreeably played on the trumpet, seems to refer to the niqab or burka and its use, which is increasingly discouraged in some European countries. It is a deep song, with very strong lyrics. Jackson questions the wearer: “is it a guarantee to keep you down…or safe, or pale?” and intones the need to respect each others’ cultures. Perhaps he has the hots for her, locked in a German jail. Fair enough, but then the song drifts off into a rant about the subject’s sister living with a German male and “how could you kill your own sister, you evil fuck?” He spits this out so venomously it suggests it’s personal to him. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, it could refer to actual people, perhaps there’s a terrorist element to it, but it’s a powerful song for sure and the best on the album so far. As a bonus there’s a lovely and quite incongruous short prog rock organ bridge in here as well. Keith Emerson would have been proud of it.

The laid back The Blue Time, played on piano, guitar and mournful trumpet could be about depression. Then again it could be about a mysterious period of time ‘too soon for the sunrise and too late for the second chance’ as it says on the tin.  It’s the sort of thing that a DJ would round off his show with at a bad wedding reception as the last remaining stragglers go through the motions of a drunken, smoochy final dance.  Nicely done, but depressing. If that was the intention, job done.

Good Bye Jonny tells the sad story of Jonny (“a gypsy who never had a home and who loved a lady as bad as women can be”) and Lilly (the same lady, whom he kills having found her in flagrante delicto with a sailor), and with a musical hall, even pantomime style flavour to it.  A novelty track that could be based on a true story, to be honest it comes across as a filler despite the effort that evidently went into recording it. ‘Nuff said.

Track 13, Neon Rain moves considerably up tempo, is distinctly heavier and is a little Alice Cooper-ish. I’m not sure what it’s about. I did a web search. There’s no other song by that title it seems, so it isn’t a cover, but there is a 1987 novel, The Neon Rain, about the murder of a prostitute in New Orleans and which ‘introduces the detective Dave Robicheaux.’ So now you know. Its head banging material up to a point, it will be interesting to see if anyone does, if and when Joe comes to the Bridgewater Hall or The Lowry. Can you imagine him anywhere else?

Track 14 is Satellite and the trumpet is back to introduce it, together with a snappy, jazzy beat. The song leaves you floundering for a meaning. I think the idea is he was never really ‘connected’ with her, just orbiting, transmitting messages and receiving replies like Telstar. “You were my high and low; you taught me to fly.” There is also the disconcerting “you were my pride and joy…and my suicide,” and “you were my boy and my girl.” All of a sudden we’re in St Vincent territory but before any further clues can be found the song irritatingly fizzles out.

Joe comes over all philosophical in the bluesy/jazzy Keep on Dreaming, which he is going to “keep on (doing) until he gets it right.” “God must think he’s God, Lording it over us. Gives us one life, makes us think it’s not enough.” “Just made himself Master of the Universe.” A great track for students of existentialism but otherwise it will give you a headache. Its saving grace is a nice piano excursion midway through and some great brass towards the end, if that floats your boat.

So Joe’s examination of the state of the world draws to an end with the final track, Ode to Joy. I was half-expecting a cover of the Beethoven classic, better known as the European Union anthem, but what we get instead is a samba beat, organ and brass-driven piece of music that is almost as powerful and which contains a hint of the classic tune in the chorus. It’s the beat that really gets to you and if this isn’t the show closer on the tour I’ll be amazed, the fade-out is even geared towards a lengthy live extension. My only complaint is that the song lacks continuity in places, being a little staccato; it occasionally stops seemingly just so it can start up again. But that’s a minor point. This is ‘Record of the Week’ material on Radio 2. Guaranteed.

To sum up, I was expecting the likes of Steppin’ Out and ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him’ to dominate this album but while there is the odd track in that vein this is a much more grown up and demanding set of songs all round and quite satisfying. The lyrics are meaningful and demand your attention. At the same time the trademark Jackson anger hasn’t abated much. I’m looking forward to spending some more time listening to it and I hope Joe Jackson will offer us the benefit of his presence on these shores before too long to hear these songs live.

The album was released on 2nd October and is supported by a tour that commenced 29 September, but only of the US, Canada, and – strangely – Belgium and the Netherlands, at least so far.

©D J Bentley, 2015