To prepare for a career-spanning interview with Joe Jackson is to go from being merely overwhelmed by his catalogue — 21 studio albums, 10 live albums — to just about drowning in it. What’s daunting isn’t just the number of recordings he’s made over the last 40 years, but the variety: rock, pop, ska, classical, jump blues, swing, jazz, and plenty more that defies categorization.
The reason Jackson writes music in so many styles, as his 1999 memoir A Cure For Gravity makes clear, is that he grew up influenced by most everything he heard. First there were two giants of classical and jazz composition respectively: Beethoven, the third symphony, especially, and Duke Ellington (Jackson devoted an entire album to his music).
Then there were the most stylish songwriters of the generation just preceding him: Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Speaking of the latter duo, Jackson told NewsHour Weekend that, “before I heard them, I didn’t know that you could do, like, melodic pop-type music, and have success with a wide audience, and have it also be sophisticated.”
Sophisticated songwriting abounds in Jackson’s work, though his last bona fide hit song was You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) from 1984’s Body and Soul. That album was his last to crack the US top 25 until he finally pulled it off again with his February 2019 release, Fool. But his records from the mid-80s till the present are full of songs that deserved a better fate.
Here’s a sampling, or listen to the full playlist on Spotify.
- Right and Wrong (1986) – Big Worldwasn’t Jackson’s most popular album in the 1980s, but it was arguably his most trenchant, with Right and Wrong offering an acerbic fist to the face of the Manichean worldview of Reaganism and Thatcherism – and at a time when most rock music was in political retreat.
- Home Town (1986) – The acerbic is nowhere to be found on this nostalgic paean to Portsmouth, the tough English naval town where Jackson grew up — and was beaten up – as he grappled with asthma, his sexuality, and the loneliness of loving music in what he describes as an utterly non-musical environment. Speaking about Home Town, Jackson told NewsHour Weekend, “I’m wary of nostalgia … It was an exercise in a way. I said, ‘I wonder if I can write a nostalgic song?’” Turns out he could – and it remains a standout in his catalogue.
- Tomorrow’s World (1989) – Jackson considers Blaze of Glory one of his best albums, and it’s no wonder. A song cycle about the maturing and disillusionment of his generation, it kicks off with Tomorrow’s World, an idealistic lament for a beautiful future the listener suspects will never arrive. (Aimee Mann fans take note: this one makes a nice pairing with Fifty Years After the Fair, another wistful song about the fabulous future that never came.)
- Hit Single (1991) – Having gone without a smash for a number of years, Jackson decided to send up the whole concept of hit singles with a bright and poppy confection that was probably too sardonically funny to ever make it onto the charts, but even today it sounds like it has all the elements of, well, a hit single.
- Awkward Age (2004) – An almost impossibly catchy tune from the album Volume 4, Awkward Age finds Jackson slyly mining the gawkiness of an uncomfortable youth only to reveal that for him – and probably for the listener, too – every age has a way of turning out to be awkward.
- Invisible Man (2008) – A key song in his latter day catalogue from the overlooked and underrated album Rain, Invisible Man features a lyric sung by a specter — either a ghost, or maybe a 50-something pop star no longer topping the charts, watching as a younger man grabs the glory. Jackson’s falsetto vocals and thick, rich piano chords combine to make the track simultaneously ethereal and earthy – quite a trick for any composer/performer.
- Fast Forward (2015) – Upon hearing the piano intro of this song, Warren Zevon fans could be forgiven for thinking they’re in for a faithful remake of Mohammed’s Radio. But the similarities end there. Fast Forward is the title track from a 2015 album that shows Jackson to be a songwriter at the height of his powers. The song quickly evolves from that intro into a minor miracle of a composition, with spiraling chord changes that give the impression that the melody never really ends, but continues infinitely after the fadeout. The sublime solo by renowned jazz violinist Regina Carter is a bonus.
- Friend Better (2019) – A standout track from his latest album, Fool, Friend Better find’s Jackson pairing jazzy, chunky piano chords with bandmate Teddy Kumpel’s stinging guitar lines in a manner that would make Steely Dan proud.
- Fool (2019) – “I wanted to write a song about humor and how important it is,” Jackson told NewsHour Weekend. “You can’t kill humor. Every tyrant in history has tried, has hated to be mocked, so they try to suppress humor in some way. And it doesn’t work in the end.” In the lyrics Jackson references Shakespeare’s jester, Feste, from Twelfth Night, but Paul McCartney’s fool (the one on the hill) also lurks in the subtext, as an observer sometimes ignored, but one who really knows what’s going on — much like Jackson himself.