Joe Jackson’s 20th studio album Fool finds him at his best, presenting a theme of comedy and tragedy, and how they connect in our lives, in an eclectic range of musical styles. Stylish and sophisticated – one expects no less from Jackson – there is also a dynamic energy running through the album reflecting the immediacy of his debut Look Sharp album released 40 years ago this month.
“Every time I’ve made an album,” Jackson explains, “I’ve gone on tour afterwards, and after a month or two the songs are feeling better, the band is playing better, I’m singing better, and I’m saying ‘damn, I wish we could record the album now!’ Well, I finally did it. Straight into the studio at the end of a tour, still on the road, wherever we played the last show, we would record. It turned out to be Boise, Idaho. A nice place, as it happens, and we very quickly got much better performances than we would have gotten a month or two earlier. It was fun, too.”
Jackson’s touring band of Teddy Kumpel (guitar), Doug Yowell (drums) and long-standing collaborator Graham Maby (bass) came together to tour his 2015 release Fast Forward. Over a 3-year period they have grown together into a very tight, slick unit and full marks to Jackson for recognising the benefits of heading straight for the studio. The album was recorded in just a week and a half and co-produced by Jackson and Pat Dillett.
Big Black Cloud is a forceful opening statement, built around Jackson’s pounding piano, looking at the drudgery of everyday life: “No luck, no money, no sex, no fun, Get on the treadmill and run run.” This idea returns on the more laid-back Dave, about an ordinary man with a normal life whose place, when he dies is taken by… an ordinary man with a normal life… It might sound like a dull existance but then Jackson poses the question, “Could it be that while we’re rushing round the world, we’re wasting all our time?”
“Go on and shove it in my face, how I should join the human race,” he spits in Fabulously Absolute, reflecting the anger of the young man who made such an impression when he burst onto the scene in 1979. By complete contrast 32 Kisses is a tender, reflective love ballad.
Jackson declares that the last time he made an album in this way, it was his critically acclaimed debut Look Sharp (with Maby on bass), which had been hawked around London as a full-length demo. Recording his next album while the band are still on the high of a tour, had been an ambition for sometime and the tour gave the band time to hone the tracks before recording.
And, after his visits to the worlds of jazz and classical, it is refreshing to find Jackson returning to his roots with such vigour. “The songs are about fear and anger and alienation and loss, but also about the things that still make life worth living: friendship, laughter, and music, or art, itself. I couldn’t have done this in 1979. I just hadn’t lived enough,” he says.
Title track Fool draws together a whole world of musical influences from the Caribbean (including Maby’s bass quoting No, Don’t Stop The Carnival) to India. “Fool is about my favourite super-hero – the one whose special power is to make us laugh. He is immortal and invulnerable, you can’t kill humour. And like Shakespeare’s Fools, he is really no fool at all. I think it’s the title track because in this battle of Comedy and Tragedy, he’s the good guy, the one I’m rooting for.”
Long live The Jester!