Four years after his last album, one of pop music’s most eclectic and often frustrating performers returns to the scene with an album due out on Rykodisc next week.
And as this album shows, despite being 52 and nearly 30 years removed from his angry debut in 1979, he hasn’t lost either his cynicism or his musicality.
Recorded in his new home of Berlin, Germany last year with his longtime musical sidekicks, bassist Graham Maby and drummer David Houghton, the 10-song set gets back to the classic Jackson pop of 2003’s “Volume Four.” It’s almost the same classic lineup that Jackson assembled for “Volume 4” in 2003 – with one crucial difference.
And that may be the difference that prevents this latest effort from being a truly great Joe Jackson album.
Guitarist Gary Sanford is MIA and, indeed, there is not a single guitar on the entire album. Which is both a blessing and a curse. Because while no one can string together a series of tuneful piano fills quite like Jackson, the listener can’t help wish for a more filled out sound that might give his latest songs some necessary heft. Truly, Jackson, who has said in interviews that one of his greatest frustrations is that he never learned to play guitar, needs a little variation now and then.
It’s not as if these are lightweight numbers. Jackson’s weary worldview never seemed fresher than on numbers such as “Invisible Man” and “Citizen Sain.” But few would dispute that part of what made Jackson such an interesting performer in the 80s was all the musical interaction he had on classic albums such as “Night and Day” and “Body and Soul.” Where would "You Can't Get What You Want" be without the really amazing pseudo-George Benson solo in the middle of it?
That said, “Rain” has several songs that are among the strongest Jackson has ever written. Lyrically,“Wasted Time” doesn’t stake any new territory in terms of its story about a love affair going bad, but Jackson’s falsetto vocal helps the song soar to new places musically.
“The Uptown Train” takes a “Song for My Father” groove and meshes it with more than a few flourishes that hearken back to “Night and Day.” And the lovely “A Place in the Rain,” with its dissipating piano, ends the album on a perfect note.
Say it is so. Joe Jackson is back.
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