It can come as a shock to realize that Joe Jackson one of the quintessential Angry Young men of Contemporary music has amassed a career spanning 40 years. It seems like only yesterday he burst upon the scene with his noteworthy album “Look Sharp”. On January 19th, the seemingly timeless Jackson releases his 20th Studio Album, “Fool”. “Fool” follows up Jackson’s 2015 transcendent recording “Fast Forward”. This go-round Jackson again displays himself to be as vital and savvy as on his initial 80’s releases. Jackson has stated the overall spark that set the theme for “Fool” is comedy and tragedy and the way both intertwine in life.
“Fool” was recorded in late July of 2018 with Jackson fresh off touring his breathtaking “Fast Forward”. The band he took on tour inspired the musical veteran to take the energy of live play and apply it to the new release. On the record, Jackson assembles his live tour musicians Graham Maby on bass, Doug Yowell on drums and Teddy Kumpel on guitar to carry out his vision. Initially, Jackson envisioned “Fool” being set up like the old vinyl sides with comedy on side 1 and tragedy on side 2. The result was more of a mixed set list. Known for his exceptional ability to genre hop this time Jackson opted for a 4 piece band structure and an underlying rock/pop ethos in contrast to the more orchestral presentation of “Fast Forward”. Thematically Jackson presents songs full of momentum and introspection; doing what he always does best identifying the contradictions of life in his own singular wry way.
What is refreshing and keeps his followers coming back for each of his musical renderings is his ability to write songs that touch on fear, anger, alienation, and loss now drawn from his personal experience. He also identifies what makes life worth living; friendship, laughter, music and love. Where he once looked at things from a young man’s frustration he is now comfortable in his skin and shares what he has learned along the path of his journey. Jackson envisions the fool of his release as his favourite superhero whose one superpower is to make us laugh. In essence, the fool is immortal and invulnerable, you can’t kill humour and like Shakespeare’s fools, he is really no fool at all. Jackson throughout the release questions the qualifications of a true fool.
The track “Big Black Cloud” starts off the recording with the noisy intro acting as a throat clearer as the strident piano takes off. The sonic is heavily reminiscent of Jackson’s earlier works without being in any way derivative. On the song, he presents a middle-class dystopia of ennui as he takes the world’s measure and reports on our current worldly madness. He takes to task our joylessness and almost pathological need to be outraged, “Save us from the big black cloud…no money, no sex, no fun, no luck.”
“Fabulously Absolute” is loaded with élan and a punchy punk approach. I love this song as it erases any doubt that Jackson can produce a hook-laden pop song. The selection returns to origins and could easily be a missing track from “Look Smart”. Following up “Fabulously Absolute” is the wry “Dave” that examines the treadmill of life. The subject of the selection doesn’t accomplish very much other than being satisfied with the unsophisticated slightly boring life he has lead. Again Jackson questions if Dave isn’t the smartest person after all, “You and me keep rushing around the world and we are wasting all our time”. On the track, Jackson examines British eccentricity, isolationism, and sophistication vs. security and never condemns either path. This clever track is accompanied by stellar drums and a smooth piano. “Strange Land” has the smooth atmospheric of a bijou café performance while mixing in a stream of consciousness phrasing. That phrasing is a showcase of Jackson’s unique voice. This introspective track looks at the journey of life while continuing the questions addressed on “Fast Forward”. He ponders the decisions made, “how are we supposed to know when to stay or when to go?” and he continues “Is this a strange land or am I the stranger?” This lovely track is rounded out with a goosebump evoking piano that supports the somewhat forlorn nature of the offering.
“Friend Better” harkens forth comparisons to Jackson’s stellar works on “Night and Day” as the offering is loaded with his sparkling keyboards. The song is a smile inducer with its delectable pop/funk mix and distinctive Jackson sonics. The key phrase of the song is “This is what the wise man said; “lover good, friend better” which makes the track a pleasurable earworm. The title track “Fool” sees Jackson again make an engaging genre leap blending Salsa, World Music, and Reggae. The light-hearted feel belies the heavier theme which ruminates on the contradict that is the definition of the fool throughout the ages. The track shows off every element of the band Jackson has pulled together to their advantage.
The mid-tempo “32 Kisses” is a study on marriage and what happens when you go from love-struck kids to long haul man and wife. This touching ode to long-lasting relationships is bittersweet as it examines fidelity and how it spans from the banal moments to the miracles of one’s life when reviewed from hindsight. The final track “Alchemy”, a favourite word of mine, is about turning the ordinary into something extraordinary. This classy ballad is a sleek and polished track that sets the stage for an exercise in magic, wonder and mystery. The gorgeous swirling guitar work and flute perform just what the track’s title suggests while harkening forth drama and supporting the narrative. Jackson with “Alchemy” performs exactly that, he is as always the ultimate musical alchemist.
Joe Jackson with “Fool” proves he is only getting better as he goes along. Like a fine wine, his works are ageing beautifully. After 40 years in the music-making business he knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. He is a survivor of the whims in Contemporary music as he has always followed his muse going wherever it has led him. His sterling discography has earned him the right to be heard on any occasion he desires to speak. His offerings are impressive and a joy to encounter and “Fool” is another worthy addition to his collection. He has always been blest with an inestimable amount of musical talent; “Fool” once again underlines his massive genius.