Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage by Joe Jackson (Public Affairs 1999)

I'm listening to an album called Look Sharp, by a guy called Joe Jackson. Despite the fact that he has the same name as me, and even looks a bit like me, I'm trying to pretend that I've never heard of him, and that I'm hearing this music for the first time.

So how does it strike me?

It positively reeks of the year 1978, although it wasn't released until the beginning of '79. It sounds like it was made in just a few days, and I laugh as I'm reminded that most of the time it's actually in mono.

As for the style of the music: There is no style. The late '70s vintage, and the general rawness of the sound, place it more or less in the New Wave. But a genre-spotter could find bits of jazz, reggae, latin, '60s pop, R&B, punk, funk, and even disco. There are echoes of the Beatles, Steely Dan, and Graham Parker. What I hear, I think, is a guy with eclectic tastes, who, by sticking mostly to just guitar, bass, and drums, and by keeping everything almost obsessively simple, has created the illusion of a style - and a style that would have been very much in sync with its time. He's also created the illusion of being a bratty rocker with a few snappy tunes. In fact, as his choice of chords and his jazzy piano-playing suggest, he's a much more accomplished musician.

I hear a voice that is a bit strained, and has a limited range, but is quite distinctive. I hear some good tunes and some awkward, childish lyrics, although they at least demonstrate, here and there, the saving grace of humor. And I definitely hear the cynical worldview of a man in his early twenties. At twenty-three or twenty-four it seems very clever to say that the world is just a bag of woe. By the time you get to, say, forty, you've seen some woe, and it's not so funny anymore.

Along with the cynicism I hear a lot of irony, which is not the same thing. Irony is a legitimate device, a way of being funny and serious at the same time, a subtle way of making a point. But irony should be handled with care. All too often, it's used as a defense. We use it to hide the fact that we don't have the courage of our convictions, the nerve to say what we really think or how we really feel. If irony hardens into habit, we become stiff, restricted, emotionally constipated. I like to think that hasn't happened.

All in all, I like Look Sharp. It makes me smile more than it makes me cringe. But it surprises me, in retrospect, that more people didn't see through the illusions - illusions that I wasn't going to be able to keep up for more than another album or two. Once the fuss died down, and I was no longer the flavor of the month, I would have two choices, neither of them easy. I would either have to turn Look Sharp into a formula and crank it out indefinitely, becoming a cartoon character in the process; or do some growing up in public.

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