The world won’t see things Joe Jackson’s way.
This has been a central theme in his work throughout his career, and he has sometimes willingly courted the contradictions. A lifelong “metropolitanista,” Jackson left London to get away from the weight of Thatcherism, finding refuge in New York City. When smoke-free, Bloomberg-aided Disneyfication tamped down the wild impulses he treasured, Jackson eventually settled in Berlin. Now, the hand of the far-right seems to be creeping toward the curtains there as well.
Jackson’s romanticism – moonlight by Marlboros, gender-indifferent attractions, gray areas and Blue Notes – has always been at odds with a culture that is both dangerously out of control but equally prudish and pearl-clutching.
His latest album, Fool, then comes as a bit of a surprise. There is no clarity of viewpoint here, and I suppose that’s the point, or rather, that’s the message. From the surprisingly doomy opener, “Big Black Cloud,” which recounts those who played by the rules and ended up living without a quality-of-life, caught up in the shared depression of the age; to “Dave,” who lives by his own rules in an aimless existence that he’s kind of cool with; to “Alchemy,” which seems to invoke the mysteries that have the capacity to remain mysterious in a lifetime of over-explanation, to the eye-corner catch of the reaper himself, waiting in the wings of the theater.
As you can guess from the imagery on the cover of Fool, with curtains from the proscenium arch, the dramatic dual face masks, and the playing card motifs that call to mind luck and chance, that mission statement of societal declarification is made manifest. You are left to guess whether the “bigot and a boob, racist and a rube” in “Fabulously Absolute” is comedic or tragic in its assertion that “I’m just somebody to deplore.” You have to weigh sarcasm against endearment when Jackson sings in the title track, “Hail the Prince in pink polyester, burn the priests and bomb the protesters, kill the King but you can’t kill Fester, long live the Jester…” In all, Jackson seems to goad the listener to determine what side they’re on, and the listeners’ choices are more a litmus test of them, not Jackson.
It’s not all quasi-political. “32 Kisses” is one of the sweetest songs he’s recorded in years, with a vein of melancholy running throughout. “Strange Land” touches on that sense of unease when the home of your choosing starts mutating before your eyes, but you don’t really catch on until too long into the process. “Thought there was a right turn here, turns out to be wrong…I study the lines on the map and the lines on my face, am I out of time or out of place?”
The album sounds great, and I have to give extra credit to Jackson’s co-producer Patrick Dillett. A mainstay producer for They Might Be Giants among others, Dillett knows how to work with smart – sometimes too smart for their own good – people, and has a way of keeping those artists from blocking their own flight path. The places I felt would be the most difficult to traverse were easier to take, if not entirely “easy listening.”
I had major reservations about Jackson’s previous album, 2015’s Fast Forward. It seemed to me a spiritual cousin to his ambitious Big World (1986) record, but lacked its joy. Not even Jackson’s New York nod to his ’70s New Wave peers Television could provide lift. It could be that the later album is indebted to Jackson’s being older but wiser, but that wisdom is what may have held it down. By reflecting on that very thing in Fool, Jackson has done what few other artists dare to, staring at the condition of the world and himself without pretending to be that 23-year-old who could belt out “Is She Really Going Out With Him” with utmost naivete…and yet not leading a funeral parade.
Fool can be plenty dark, no question, but it is eminently listenable and engaging. It insists you do not accept it at face value, not the faces of the playing cards nor the faces of the harlequins exhorting you to laugh or cry. Jackson is manipulating you into thinking for yourself, which is just about the most radical statement one can make.