If you don’t know the work of Joe Jackson, you must be really young. In the late ’70s he was an angry, snarling tunesmith who burst out of England in a fury. Like Elvis Costello, he specialized in tightly wound catchy rock songs built around observations of everyday life, peppered with occasional sentiments of love and disdain.
His 1978 debut, “Look Sharp,” included the hit “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” On that track, he set the scene of “pretty women out walking with gorillas down (his) street” while he sat dumbfounded, alone looking out the window. In another notable hit on that album, he criticized tabloid journalism (long before it was cool to do so) on “Sunday Papers.” A string of hits followed. It all led upto his 1982 triumph, “Night and Day,” a decidedly unpunk, frequently Latin-rhythmed crawl through urban existence. That album included his most indelible hit, “Steppin’ Out.”
After a few years, Jackson seemed to drift away from the pop and rock realms, instead focusing on more orchestral works, as well as famously scoring movies like “Tucker.”
In 2003, perhaps worried that his 25-year mark was approaching, and maybe hoping the powers that be wouldn’t forget to include him in their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selections, he gathered his band (bassist Graham Maby, drummer Dave Houghton and guitarist Gary Sanford) and released an old-fashioned spiky rock record called “Volume 4.” Two songs on “Volume 4″ stood up particularly well next to his classics. “Awkward Age” was a highly catchy ode to feeling like a social outcast, and “Take It Like a Man” was a propulsive piano and guitar rocker about gender issues. Both subjects are frequent topics in Jackson’s work.
Now he’s come out of hiding to release “Rain.” What catches your ear first is the record lacks guitar. (Where is Sanford? Was the rest of the band unsuccessful in getting him to return for another record?) That just leaves the basic trio of Jackson’s piano, Houghton’s drums and Maby’s bass. They sound very stately and polished, but it ends up sounding more composerly than rocking. It’s more like something you’d hear at a fancy piano bar. There’s nothing wrong with that. Jackson’s musical chops have gotten him far. Like Costello, he’s one of the few artists who started in a punk tradition but always paid special care to the mechanics of composition. Both men’s recent work has shown them to be highly versatile because of this.
“Rain” is more akin to “Night and Day” and less like “Look Sharp” or its follow-up, “I’m the Man.” It lacks that spice and volatility sometimes present on “Night and Day,” so it actually really sounds sort of like it’s slightly less-entertaining cousin. The songs are well-constructed, however, and Jackson fully proves he can beat anyone at the “least-cheesy, most listenable piano-ballad” contest, but for all their ornate flourishes, the album has a sameness to it throughout.
What is also a strange development is the amount of falsetto singing Jackson does. The practice nearly kills the enjoyable “Uptown Train.” Jackson isn’t Prince. He isn’t a smooth soul singer, so he has trouble pulling this off. But he does it multiple times on the album. “Invisible Man,” the record’s opener, is only mildly hurt by this since he only sings in falsetto for a brief moment. The song’s insistent, driving chorus of “You can’t touch the invisible man” lifts it into the realm of some of Jackson’s best work. The opening is epic, too, with his show of “Hey! Can you hear me now?” as if he were doing an initial sound check or simply returning into the limelight from obscurity. Given Jackson’s low-profile as of late, it’s an interesting beginning choice.
“Too Tough” is a great track, but it would be even better at twice the tempo with a guitar part. Then it might have the resonance of “Awkward Age.” Jackson’s pop sensibilities are still highly intact. He knows a great tune, but his often sleepy arrangements don’t do his songs any favors.
“Citizen Sane” at least speeds up the rhythm, but it’s an attempt at a rocker, and it doesn’t rock the way it really should. If Sanford was around, the band could give it the treatment it deserves.
“Wasted Time” is another ballad. Jackson has always been a master at such songs, but once again the falsetto in the chorus is quite grating.
“Solo (So Low)” is a standout because of its darkly classical-leaning mood. It sounds almost like something that should underscore a funeral procession. Like a slower answer to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” it sounds like it could be nicely done by a string quartet.
“Rush Across the Road” is a pleasant, mid-tempo pop song, but once again, the arrangement morphs what could be a highly potent number into something sort of bland. Only when Jackson makes a significant note jump during the chorus do things begin to get interesting.
On “Good Bad Boy” you can hear Jackson’s inner punk trying to claw his way out, but he’s once again restrained by his almost Broadway-esque arrangements. Once again, substitute the piano for a guitar, and there might be something more venomous there. Otherwise it just sounds like something to riff off of at “theater camp.”
“A Place in the Rain” is yet another literate ballad. This, unlike the previously mentioned song, was meant for this kind of arrangement. The piano works well with it, allowing the shifting structures and chorus to soar. So it’s not a complete loss after all.
The only time Jackson truly lets himself let loose is on the superior “King Pleasure Time.” What allows this song to gain power is that Maby’s bass is in the forefront, and Jackson’s piano is used more for punctuation purposes. In this case, less is indeed more! If only more of the album sounded like this.
“Rain” is still an enjoyable record. Jackson shows he still has musical skill and that he can still record a great song, but it also shows that he doesn’t know the power of variety. So many of these songs would have been better with an electric guitar. Never the less, Jackson continues to prove himself to be a fine composer and a keen songwriter with a lot of depth. He just needs to know when to resist his classical impulses and how he can balance them with the punk he once was.
Maybe someday he’ll record another rocker in the vein of his classic “Got the Time.” When that day comes, it will be reason to celebrate. Given what was on “Volume 4,” I think such a move is still possible. Despite the shortcomings of “Rain,” Joe Jackson remains a highly revered master. Maybe someday the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will remember him and reward him like they should.
Note: “Rain” is also packaged as a special edition with a bonus DVD featuring a mini live concert and a making of featurette showing the band recording the album in Berlin.