When Joe Jackson's debut, Look Sharp ( A&M Records ), dropped in 1979, he found himself lumped in with fellow literate Brit punkers Graham Parker and Elvis Costello.
The three of them had undeniable similarities ( all fronting legendary bands, having distinctive voices, sharing a love for U.S. pop musiceach having a talent for writing some of the most scathing lyrics ever ) but, in hindsight, getting categorized actually liberated them ( and us ) musically. In the space of 36 years, Costello, Parker and Jackson have created discographies that have gone far beyond what those debuts suggested.
Jackson, who was in town for a sold-out two-night stand at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Ave., has just released the double disk Fast Forward ( Caroline/Universal Records ), which contains whole segments recorded in four distinctly different cities ( New Orleans, Berlin, Amsterdam and New York ). As a musician who has made profitable leaps from punk to jazz, big band, orchestral works, movie soundtracks and jump blues, it would be fair to assume that one cannot assume anything about Jackson. There is also the fact that Jackson remains as one of a handful of artists who has never pandered to his audience ( he has always assumed that we are just as intelligent as he is ) even when he is at his most obvious ( "Fools in Love" ). Now edging into his fourth decade as a high-profile rock star, Fast Forward proves that he is still full of surprises.
The big one here is that Fast Forward is a straight-up "pop" album with Jackson's trademark cynicism held in check and a more pronounced wistfulness and ( YIKES!!! ) nostalgia. This is not to say that he has gotten all moist and wussy but that, despite the title Fast Forward, the recording is largely in a reflective mood.
Although there are no stylistic departures, Fast Forward is studded with jewels and could be called Jackson's first "adult" album. "If it Weren't for You" is a love song with a funny slightly zingy punch line ( "If it weren't for me you would be a better person..." ) while "Kings of the City" evokes the aloneness of constantly moving forward and only seeing things in a rear view mirror. My favorite here, "So You Say," is a great rainy-day ballad worthy of prime Ella Fitzgerald or Mel Torme. Maybe this ( mostly ) fangless Jackson is looking back with a honeyed perspective, but he is still at the top of his game.
If this new recording implies that Jackson has exchanged the vinegar in his soul for the safe taste of Maalox, on Nov. 2, his first night at Thalia Hall, he put that notion to rest. Opening the show alone at the keyboards, he gave the show a far different touch of nostalgia with four gems from the distant past: "Different for Girls," "My Hometown," "Be My Number Two," and the hetero-male chauvinistic challenger "Real Men." Hearing him snarl, "Don't call me a faggot not unless you are a friend...," near the close of "Real Men" snapped the evening right out of that gauzy haze but quick.
"Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Sunday Papers" had a healthy hunk of bile behind them and proved that Jackson was nowhere near rolling over and playing dead. "Chinatown" turned into an atonal jam session the moment Jackson closed his mouth and let his crack band ( Graham Maby on bass, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Stefan Kruger on drums ) run wild with it while a stripped down "Stepping Out" was elegant and lilting. "You Can't Get What You Want" had juice to spare while the new "Keep On Dreaming" edged toward roof rattling gospel. There were pleasant surprises ( a cover of Television's "See No Evil" and a sloppy joyride through Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" theme ) but the night was sealed by two of Jackson's best unheralded songs.
"A Slow Song" is such a naked and sincere torch song that hearing it again made it clear why it took someone like Adele to bring the art form back into fashion. Torch songs depend on a deliberate and delicate balance between unchecked emotion and subtle suggestion through phrasing and demands a concentrated skill. Jackson grabbed the moment and ran with it for all it was worth.
"On the Radio" has always been a fun, rollicking F.U. anthem, but hearing it now in the era of school bullying and epidemic teen suicides has given it an entirely different tone. Of course when he wrote it in 1980 he had no clue that his autobiographical rave up could have such resonance. As the victim of bullying from seemingly all directions depicted in the song, Jackson tore through the lyrics with a vengeance ( "Now you can't get no where near me, you can only hope to hear me on your radio..." ) and made it clear that he was very much in touch with his adolescent rage. The song came late in the evening but it was obvious that, at the tender age of 61, Jackson still has acid as well as sentiment pumping through his heart and that this story is far from over.
Heads up: For those who didn't get enough ( or any at all ) at her stand at The Chicago Theatre last week, Janet Jackson will be playing The Allstate Arena on June 4, 2016. Tickets are already on sale.