May 2003

Joe Jackson - Volume 4
Rykodisc/Restless CD-RCD 10638
Released: 2003

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***1/2 *
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

Joe Jackson says he had to pick himself up off the floor when he realized it was 25 years ago that he recorded his first album, Look Sharp!. He’s not the only one. A quick glance at his titles in my music collection reminded me that Jackson has been making records for a quite a while. It also reminded me that he’s always been restless -- he’s never let himself be defined by any musical style. Like Elvis Costello (the musician with whom he’s most often compared), Jackson constantly seeks new ways to challenge himself and his fans.

Jackson’s original band made three records before it broke up in 1980. Since then, he’s made a series of recordings that are notable for their consistent high quality and variety. Night Music, from 1994, is one of the best discs of the '90s, a beautiful, stunningly recorded balance of musical ambition and pop songcraft (it’s apparently out of print here in the US). Jackson has written a symphony, a few soundtracks, and a series of great (and, again, beautifully recorded) pop records, including Night and Day, Body and Soul, Big World, Blaze of Glory, and Laughter and Lust.

Volume 4 is Jackson’s first rock'n'roll record since Laughter and Lust in 1991, but he hasn’t lost his ability to write great hooks. Some of his recent discs, such as Heaven and Hell, need a little time and careful listening, but Volume 4 grabs you with its first track, "Take it Like a Man." Jackson’s skills as a songwriter have deepened over the years, and his singing has more emotional color than it did when he was younger. But Volume 4 has as much power and drive as those early records. Age hasn’t mellowed Jackson any.

It hasn’t mellowed his band, either. Guitarist Gary Sanford, drummer Dave Houghton, and bassist Graham Maby (who’s played on nearly all of Jackson’s recordings) have even more refined chops than they did 20 years ago, but they still play with the fire of those early records. Houghton’s drums sound explosive here, and he plays with tremendous energy. Maby’s precise timing and fluid attack keep things moving along gracefully. After so many years of playing with Jackson, he knows exactly what to bring to his songs.

Jackson says of Sanford, "Gary was always, in my estimation, overqualified." It’s easy to underestimate guitarists who don’t solo, yet Sanford repeatedly proves on Volume 4 that a rhythm guitarist’s skills are crucial. He sets the tone with his quick, bright support on the rockers, and he uses a more delicate touch on the quieter tunes, such as "Chrome" and "Blue Flame." Jackson has always chosen his musicians with care. Here his musicians were chosen for him, in a sense, but he didn’t write beneath himself -- he didn’t have to because these guys can play anything he throws at them.

Because Jackson has so much confidence in his musicians, he allows himself on Volume 4 to return to some of the fast, edgy pop of his first records while at the same time writing songs that are more sophisticated. "Dirty Martini" is as punchy as anything on Look Sharp! or I’m The Man, but "Blue Flame" could have come from one of his recent records. "Fairy Dust" has a loose funkiness, which the band couldn’t have pulled off as well in its younger days, and it contains instrumental passages that allow Maby and Jackson, on piano, to throw some sparks.

Lyrically, Jackson touches on many of the themes that have long interested him: the joys and pain of romantic love ("Still Alive," "Little Bit Stupid"), the difficulties of fitting in ("Awkward Age"), and the occasional incomprehensibility of pop culture ("Thugs ‘R’ Us"). For most of the disc he tempers his cynicism with hope, but on "Fairy Dust" and "Thugs ‘R’ Us" he lets the bile flow.

Jackson says Volume 4, which he produced, was recorded in ten days, "… about the same time as Look Sharp… I overdubbed some of the piano I parts, but most of the songs are second or third takes." The result is a disc that has an immediate, live feel. The bass could have been pulled back a little, perhaps, but the instruments are recorded cleanly and with plenty of snap. Volume 4 is not as sonically impressive as most of Jackson’s other work, but it has an appealing straightforwardness.

I don’t know what Jackson’s next move will be, but I hope he records again with this band. There’s no hint on Volume 4 of Jackson attempting to recapture his original audience or revisiting his past. He seems to be revitalized as a pop songwriter here. It would be nice if we didn’t wait another dozen years for a rock'n'roll record from Joe Jackson.