Renaissance man Joe Jackson is a living legend who has worked in just about every genre imaginable. On October 2, he released his 20th studio album Fast Forward. The erudite Englishman has been a musical master craftsman for decades. Fast Forward follows Jackson’s last release “The Duke” which brilliantly reinterpreted Duke Wellington works and went to #1 in the US Contemporary Jazz chart in 2012. On this outing Jackson goes for a more Catholic effort touching on almost every genre in his discography.
The concept for Fast Forward was to originally release a series of four 4 track EP’s each related to a specific city, in many ways similar to the concept that David Grohl has used on the Foo Fighters latest release. Eventually Jackson’s four release idea was abandoned and instead the entire work was released on a single album. The four cities where he recorded were New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and New Orleans. In each city Jackson worked with local artists, arranged the songs and recorded in situ. The album contains two covers, Television’s “See No Evil” and a rendition of the 1930’s cabaret song “Good Bye Johnny”. The release was produced by Jackson, Stefan Schmid, and Stefan Kruger. Jackson used a number of session musicians including his long time bassist Graham Maby. Also featured on the release are Brian Blade, The Royal Concetgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and 14 yr old vocalist Mitchell Sink.
Jackson has been considered by many to be the quintessential eccentric contrarian who is ever willing to follow his musical curiosity wherever it takes him. He attempts to continually evolve musically. Throughout his career he has been considered one of the trinity of 80’s New Wave/Bitter British Punk songwriters, which also includes Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. His career has spanned from 1979 to today and he has conquered many genres. Notable in his pop heyday are albums such as 1979’s Look Sharp, and I’m the Man, 1982’s Night and Day and 1984’s Body and Soul. Along the way he has garnered 5 Grammy Award nominations; all with songs memorable for their energy, shrewdness, wit and eclecticism.
On Fast Forward Jackson has presented one of his more openly accessible efforts in his recent recordings. He is still the ever perceptive if somewhat acerbic observer of mankind’s chronic insanity. However with time he has mellowed ever so slightly, as he said about his outlook and the album, “When you’re young, it seems very clever to be cynical. But as you get older, hopefully, if you not completely stupid, you realize that you have to be more positive; as a simple matter of survival.” That more positive outlook is reflected throughout the album.
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The first four songs on the album fall under the New York City subheading. The title song, Fast Forward is familiar but fresh and will scratch the itch of long time fans of Jackson. He is still making his wry observations about where were we are at this time and place on the planet; with a lyric like;” miserable with millions or dying for a dime”. The track was partly inspired by a thought he had about building a time machine where he could fast forward to a time when people will be happy and not so dumb or scared. The song was written as a cycle and has an intricate structure. This song reminds you why so many people like Joe Jackson’s works. The combination of superb lyrics and sophisticated accompaniment make for a brilliant song.
If It Wasn’t for You Is an energy filled up-tempo tune with all of Jackson’s signature sonic motifs. The song describes the yin and yang of relationships and the rationalizations we make to justify our failings. An additional joy on the track is Jackson’s instantly recognizable piano work. The Television cover “See No Evil” is terrific. Jackson reaches back to his early days when he was the “angry young man” of 80’s songwriters and infuses it with his biting delivery. Proving once again Jackson can jump genres and be simply amazing. The final track under the New York heading is King of the City which is a nostalgic bittersweet song. It is a slice of life track that examines life and how attitudes change as we get older. Jackson takes the listener from youth expectations through changes into the adult realization that no one is perfect.
The next four songs fall under the Amsterdam subheading and starts off with A Little Smile, which is probably the most radio friendly track on the release. The song comes off as occurring after a disagreement with the attempt to get back to a smile or a laugh after a falling out. The chorus is dramatic and the piano is phenomenal. Far Away is simply gorgeous with an engaging construct. It is a change up from the first few songs with a stunning harp and strings arrangement. Jackson utilizes 14 year old vocalist Mitchell Sink perfectly as he juxtaposes a young man starting out and then Jackson coming in on the later part of the song as the older man. Both start out with the lyric, “It’s me and me alone…” and then convey the yearning and excitement of life for the young man and the wisdom and sagacity of maturity being represented by Jackson’s vocal. A must listen song on the release.
So You Say jumps genre into jazz fusion with an underlying world beat feel. This song could have come directly off of Night and Day. It is a twist lyrically on simply agreeing with some one just to keep the peace, “I’m the fool and you’re the sage.” Poor Thing takes a macro view of humans on the planet, and where Jackson before might have taken a glass is half empty point of view, here he takes the glass is half full outlook. He plays with the lyrical statement “What a life it is” following it with “oh gee everything is tragic today, maybe you like it that way.” He conveys the point that you have a choice to make about your outlook and how to take what life dishes out.
The Berlin subheading kicks off with Junkie Diva which has a funky rock infusion, Jackson makes apt acerbic observations about today’s culture and music scene. It is an awesome concoction more in keeping with the early pop punk side of Jackson’s vast palette. It is distinctive and delivered as only Jackson can.
Of note on the Berlin songs Jackson stretches the most between genres from the funky Junkie Diva to the confrontational If I could See Your Face then proceeds to follow that song with one of the most beautiful songs on the album, The Blue Time and finishes off the section with the cabaret cover, Goodbye Johnny.
If I Could See Your Face Has an evocative intro with reeds and horns then breaks into a gritty rocker. The topic is questioning if western culture is gets too politically correct to fight evil and wrong. He excoriates P/C proponents for excuse inaction by placing wrong under the heading of cultural diversity. Jackson goes for the throat pointing out how certain brutal Islamic practices do not fit in with Western cultural freedoms and mores. His example is the subjugation of Muslim women and honor killings happening in Europe. He asks the girl behind the burka if is she truly happy and wonders how we can be sure the answer is not forced. After a listen I am surprised this song has not made more of a stir as Jackson is pretty clear about his feelings on the topic. The song is delivered with urgency and directness. Jackson hedges no bets with this song.
After the confrontation of If I Could See Your Face Jackson dials it down with the beautiful ballad The Blue Time. It is a shimmering and evocative song. A definite “Do Not Miss” track on the album that Jackson delivers with an apt vocal. The final song of the Berlin subheading is the cover of Goodbye Johnny which displays Jackson’s multi faceted musical gifts. Here is a tune sung with macabre relish and harkens back to Jackson’s work in the genres of swing, blues, jazz, classics and standards.
The final sub headed city is New Orleans, it should come as no surprise that the section is underpinned by a more jazz fusion vibe but the songs are informed by other genres as well creating something exceptional. Neon Rain is actually a percussion explosion with a great rock guitar and call and reply vocals. “Satellite” is a stellar song where the jazz payoff is complete. The song is about being overtaken with another person and becoming their satellite, “I will always be your satellite.” This song would sit well with either Night and Day or Look Sharp it is a sophisticated track.
Keep on Dreaming is a mid tempo genre fusing song. It suggests without the dream we have no goals and that the individual needs to keep dreaming because it gives us purpose. “Keep on dreaming till I get it right.” The concept of no matter how many times we get knocked down pursuing our dream it is important and to value those dreams. The final song of the album is Ode to Joy is a riff on Jackson’s hero Beethoven. It is like no other with its afro world beats and is a very sophisticated take on the classic making it Jackson’s own.
Undoubtedly Jackson is a master at combining beauty with intelligence. Fast Forward finds a new addition to Jackson’s stylings; warmth and generosity. The release is spectacular and probably the most easily approachable release in his recent history, it is addictively listenable. The record represents all of Jackson’s gifts informed by a life time as a phenomenal performer who rarely if ever disappoints. The stereotype of Jackson is that of an angry young man. Here he is no less angry but so much wiser and dare I say suffice with where life has brought him and it reflects itself on the recording. Fast Forward is an excellent introduction to those who are not familiar with his exceptional efforts and will be oh so satisfying for his long time fans.