"It's funny that now people look back and say, 'Oh, I like your early stuff, like Look Sharp! and Night and Day," confides Joe Jackson about the albums that made '70s new wave history and expanded '80s pop's boundaries, respectively. "It seemed to me at the time that they were radically different." Jackson's plans for 2019 will offer a chance for new perspectives on these milestones and more — his projects include both a 40th anniversary tour and a new album with ties to his rocking past.
Jackson releases Fool on Jan. 18 and begins his Four Decade Tour on Feb. 5. Over the last 40 years, his mercurial muse has led him through jump blues, symphonic music, jazz, rock, film scores, and more. The tour is an opportunity to create a kind of live highlight reel, and the straightforward rock-band format of the new album bears a bit of the energy of his early efforts, albeit tempered with a well-earned maturity.
The set list for Jackson's tour focuses on one album from each decade of his career, with 1979 debut Look Sharp! leading the charge. England was overtaken by new wave at that point, and that energy infected Jackson, even though his skills were well beyond most of his peers. "When I was 22, 23 years old in London in the late '70s I was very influenced by what was going on around me," remembers Jackson, "even if I was already overqualified to be a punk rocker. I was a Steely Dan-loving piano player. And I was interested in jazz, and I had classical training as well, so I was a bit of a misfit." Nevertheless, hits like "Is She Really Going Out With Him" and "It's Different for Girls" (the latter from his second LP, I'm the Man) connected with the zeitgeist in a major way. "I would say that probably those two albums are the closest I ever came to fitting in with the musical climate of a specific time and place," Jackson reckons.
It didn't take too long for Jackson's artistic restlessness to take him elsewhere both musically and geographically. By the early '80s he was living in New York soaking up new sounds that would inspire the cosmopolitan pop of Night and Day, which eschewed guitars (and rock n' roll entirely) and focused on keyboards and Latin percussion. "New York at that time was a very exciting place to be," remembers Jackson. "What was happening musically was very interesting. Not just the CBGB connection but what was happening in Latin music. And you had the beginnings of hip-hop then, too. It was a very interesting place and time, like London had been in the late '70s."
Between the synth-pop sparkle of "Steppin' Out" and the lush balladry of "Breaking Us in Two," Night and Day became Jackson's biggest album ever, but it was far from a sure thing. "I really was nervous about putting that album out," he confesses. "I thought there was a pretty fair chance that everyone would hate it."
Jackson pragmatically enumerates what he sees as contributing factors to the record's success. "The fact that I was still seen as a relatively new artist that the media was interested in, to the extent that if I did something rather different they would pay attention. The fact that I was with a record company who were hot at that point [A&M], and who decided to prioritize that record and really give it a big push. The fact that MTV was still quite new and we made videos for the album, which got played a lot. The fact that we toured for a whole year to support the album…and the fact that, I hope, that it was a pretty good album too."
It was inevitable that Night and Day would represent the '80s on the Four Decade Tour, and 1991's Laughter and Lust stands up for the following decade. It was actually Jackson's only conventional pop album of the '90s. "Later in the '90s I went through a phase where I was fed up with writing songs," he explains. "I went into what a lot of people probably see as my mad scientist phase. It was kind of a weird time, because after I did Laughter and Lust I had serious writer's block, I didn't write anything at all for a couple of years. And when I came back to making music I didn't just want to write songs." During that period, Jackson crafted such complex, classically influenced albums as Night Music and Heaven and Hell. "I'm quite proud of them," he says, "but they are definitely not pop mainstream and I didn't really expect a lot of people to like them. And I was right."
2008's Rain is the record occupying the 2000s slot on the tour's set list. It was Jackson's most small-scale production up to that point, and it found him backed by his original rhythm section of bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton. "All I wanted to do was write the most classic songs that I could," recalls Jackson, "in the simplest, most stripped-down way that I could possibly do. And that turned out to be just voices, piano, bass, and drums. Another reason why I like the idea of zeroing in on that album with my current band is that I can actually reinvent the songs a bit by adding the guitar. So that makes it a bit more interesting."
Like Rain, not to mention Jackson's first few albums, Fool (which features Maby, guitarist Teddy Kumpel, and drummer Doug Yowell) is a visceral small-band record bursting with immediacy. "It's very much a band album," agrees Jackson, "I hadn't really done that for a while. I had such a good time touring the last three years or so with this band, I really wanted to record something with them."
"I think every track is fucking great," Jackson admits. "I don't believe in false modesty [laughs], I feel that if I put something out in front of the public, then I should feel that it's great, because I have no guarantee that anyone else will. And I shouldn't expect them to, unless I think it's great in the first place."
Tunes like "Fabulously Absolute" and the title track are the most raucous cuts Jackson has released in a long time, but as always, there's a lot of lyrical sophistication at work as well. Over the almost Beatlesque piano pulse of "Big Black Cloud," he satirizes what he sees as a disturbing trend. "It's the politics of fear and a general kind of paranoid mindset where people seem to be scared of their own shadows a lot of the time," he explains, "People in positions of authority, all kinds of authority, seem to try to legitimize or bolster their authority by frightening us one way or another, by basically saying, 'The sky is falling but if you support me and vote for me and do what I say you'll be OK.'"
"Fool" itself advocates for the sociopolitical power of a more lighthearted mindset. "I imagine this character the fool as the personification of humor," Jackson explains, "and he's like a superhero. He's got this power to make people laugh and he's invulnerable, you can't kill him, and he lives forever, he's never gonna go away, at least I hope not. Every totalitarian regime has tried to suppress humor, because tyrants can't bear to be laughed at, but you can't stop it in the end. I think it's one of the most amazing things about human beings."
Jackson decided to release Fool in January of '19 to keep with the chronology of the 40th anniversary idea, Look Sharp! having been unveiled in January of '79. As much as anything else, his Four Decade Tour underscores the maverick nature of his music. "I don't really think in terms of genres or fashion," says Jackson. "I never did, particularly, but at this point I'm really way past it. I mean, I've been past my sell-by date for a long time when it comes to being cool and fashionable and so on -- I just don't give a damn.
"I think I wrote in my book [1999 memoir A Cure for Gravity] somewhere that the only way to really get the upper hand is to really not give a shit," he laughs. "I don't care about that stuff, I care about the music. I care about making the album as good as it can be. And I care about putting on the best show I possibly can, every night making it great, really connecting with people and having a good time."