It’s a grey and windy Sunday afternoon as I write this. I am listening to the fantastic, wonderful, gorgeous new album from Joe Jackson, and I’m wondering why he doesn’t get more respect.
That’s not to say that he’s not respected. He’s revered by those who know his work, and by his fellow songwriters. But if you’re not one of those, you most likely only know Joe Jackson for his hits: “Steppin’ Out,” “Is She Really Going Out with Him,” possibly “Breaking Us in Two.” Just about all of those hits came from his first five albums, released between 1979 and 1982. His new one, which I am currently basking in, is his 18th, and he’s garnered little to no attention for anything he’s done since Body and Soul in 1985.
Which is a ridiculous shame, and yet kind of understandable. Jackson has gone the same route as his fellow Brit Elvis Costello, crafting a catalog of tangents and genre experiments. Taken as a whole, Jackson’s output shows off a remarkable breadth, and is clearly the work of a musician who knows no boundaries. Taken one by one, I’m sure it feels confusing. Jackson is also not Elvis Costello, and there’s no shame in that – the man has few peers. But Jackson’s dips into orchestral music and big band jazz and whatever 2012’s The Duke was supposed to be haven’t been as artistically successful as Costello’s excursions in versatility.
But hell, Jackson has sustained a 36-year recording career doing whatever he wants, which is a pretty rare feat. He started, of course, as an angry young man, crafting three albums of sneering new-wave guitar pop. Even now, three decades on, the songs on Look Sharp and I’m the Man and Beat Crazy still sound perfect to my ears. (Here’s a slightly embarrassing story: the first version of “Got the Time” I ever heard was Anthrax’s cover, and when I finally got Look Sharp I was surprised and impressed by how little they had to change it to metal it up.)
Much like Costello, Jackson left his early, angry work behind shortly after perfecting it, and he’s never looked back. And much like Costello, Jackson’s detractors have wanted him to return to his early style ever since. Jackson’s first leap away was Jumpin’ Jive in 1981, a straight-faced album of small-band swing covers that must have come as a shock. 1982’s Night and Day probably came as a larger one – a guitar-less pop record that incorporated salsa and reggae and beautiful balladry, a paean to his adoptive home city of New York that, thankfully, spawned a few hits, including his biggest, “Steppin’ Out.” I say thankfully because, had Night and Day flopped, Jackson might have become more conservative in his musical choices, and we would have been robbed of an amazing journey.
That journey has included tremendous pop records like Big World and Laughter and Lust, but also grand-scale orchestral projects like Will Power and Symphony No. 1, demented theater pieces like Heaven and Hell, and delicate and gorgeous chamber-pop like Night Music. I gave a smack to The Duke earlier, but it’s a project only Joe Jackson would think of – modern renditions of Duke Ellington songs performed with the likes of Steve Vai, Iggy Pop, Sharon Jones and ?uestlove. Whatever else it is – and it’s not very successful – it is certainly creative and ambitious. Even when it seems like Jackson is slacking – that 2000 sequel to Night and Day, for instance – he manages to pull off something interesting.
Even when Jackson makes a big pop album like this new one, Fast Forward, it’s always much more intriguing than it seems. This one is a collection of four EPs, each one recorded in a different city – New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and New Orleans – with a different group of musicians. It is, if you’ll forgive me, all over the map, but it hangs together as a 72-minute statement very well. And that statement is that Joe Jackson, at 61, is still one of the best songwriters alive, and in fact has grown more comfortable with his elder statesman status and his remarkable past.
Fast Forward is an old guy record, mostly slower and meditative, but it’s a stunningly imaginative one. If his reunion with the original Joe Jackson Band in 2003 and his subsequent stomping, rave-up shows were something of a mid-life crisis, this album makes it clear that the crisis has passed. But he’s still too good, too cranky, too uncompromising to just give up and be Sting. Fast Forward incorporates many of his influences, from jazz to pure pop to chamber music to cabaret to soaring balladry to horn-driven rock – it’s like taking a spin through his catalog on (ahem) fast forward – and coalesces them into a lovely and complete summation.
At no point here does it feel like Jackson is trying too hard. In fact, it feels like all of these styles and sounds are well within his grasp. He’s confident enough to begin the album with the six-minute title track, a sparse ballad about accepting that the past is gone: “Not going back to the age of gold or the age of sin, fast forward ‘til I understand the age I’m in.” It’s patient, unfolding slowly, content to revel in its delicate melody and Jackson’s typically acerbic observations. Things pick up with “If It Wasn’t For You,” a swell, spiraling pop song that stands among Jackson’s best, and a cover of Television’s “See No Evil,” featuring – as all the New York songs do – Bill Frisell on guitar and Brian Blade on drums.
The New York material is the most typically Jackson, as you’d probably expect. His Amsterdam combo includes a full string quartet, and the material is suitably lovely – “A Little Smile” is a pure pop song, but “Far Away” is a soaring yet melancholy number that could have fit on Night Music, its first verse sung by a clear-voiced young boy hitting stratospheric high notes. The Berlin material is the most diverse, from the funk of “Junkie Diva” to the plaintive yearnings of “The Blue Time” to the record’s one stumble, a cover of 1930s German cabaret tune “Good Bye Jonny.”
But it is the New Orleans songs that pack the most surprises. They’re loose and jammy and full of tasty horns, and Jackson sounds freer and more at ease than I’ve heard him in ages. For once, he decides to leave us with joy instead of melancholy – the skittering “Satellite,” the thumping “Keep On Dreaming,” and finally, a full-on “Ode to Joy,” without irony. Yes, Jackson quotes Beethoven here, but in the midst of one of his most uplifting, percussive, raise-your-hands-in-the-air tunes. “Don’t say no when you feel joy,” he exclaims, and coming from this infamous curmudgeon, it’s revelatory. It ends things on just the right note.
Fast Forward spans 16 songs and nearly as many styles, and in the center of all of it is Jackson. He’s such a presence – his voice sounds as supple and strong as it did in 1982, and his writing has matured beautifully, still sharp and full of tiny daggers, yet warm and welcoming at the same time. Jackson might never get the respect he deserves, but on this grand new record, he stands tall anyway, not caring about accolades or awards. Fast Forward is a Joe Jackson album to the core, and the best one he’s made in probably two decades. And he did it just by being Joe Jackson.
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I’m always going to love Queensryche.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I fell in love with this Seattle band’s seminal Operation: Mindcrime when I was 14 years old. While it may not have been the first rock opera I heard, it was the first one I studied, the first one that opened my eyes to the possibilities of telling stories with song. Queensryche was marketed as “thinking man’s metal,” and beyond the obvious sexism there, it was true – in a world full of hair metal songs about girls, girls, girls, Queensryche was a serious political group with a lot more on their minds.
I think it was that focus that allowed them to outlast most of their peers, and the loss of original guitarist Chris DeGarmo (frankly, the best melody writer of the bunch). Even through 2011, Queensryche was making well-considered records that lived up to their legacy. I didn’t even hate Operation: Mindcrime II, though it’s not a patch on the original. And yeah, lead singer Geoff Tate had lost a bit of edge off that remarkable voice, but it was still there, and the band sounded lean and hungry behind him, still putting out worthy material.
Which is why the split just one year later was so devastating. It was acrimonious as all hell, with Tate on one side and the four players on the other, fighting over the name Queensryche, with each releasing albums under that name in 2013. It was intensely confusing and very sad to see what had become of this mighty band. What got lost in the shuffle somewhat is that both albums were good – Tate’s was a glorified solo record, but there were some solid tunes on there, and the band’s debut with new (and incredible) singer Todd La Torre tore the damn roof off, a 30-minute burst of pent-up aggression.
Now the legal issues are settled – the band won the right to be Queensryche while Tate retained ownership of both Operation: Mindcrime albums, and subsequently named his new band Operation: Mindcrime. (Yes, it’s a bit tacky, but he won the right to the name, so whaddaya gonna do.) Both entities are back with new records, released within two weeks of each other. Tate’s first Mindcrime album, The Key, is also the opening salvo in a conceptual trilogy, proving that he was the driving force behind all those rock operas. Queensryche, on the other hand, have created another slice of driving, powerful old-school metal with Condition Human.
And while I like them both, I’m giving the edge to Queensryche here. I love concept pieces, and Tate is spinning a decent one – The Key is the story of a guy who somehow comes to possess a powerful new technology, and has to evade death while figuring out how to give it away to the world. By the end, our hero appears to have died, which should make the two sequels interesting. As a concept, I have no trouble with it, but Tate and company haven’t written many compelling songs here. Most of these tunes suffer from late-period Queensryche syndrome – they’re content to pound out a single groove for a while without doing much with it, and they end up being pretty forgettable. Combine that with the obviously lower budget Tate is working with, and The Key is not as sweeping as he probably hoped it would be.
By contrast, Condition Human finds Queensryche sounding revitalized, fierce, ready for anything. La Torre is an astoundingly good singer – the band can give him anything and he’ll nail it. Some of these songs, particularly the opener and first single “Arrow of Time,” go full Iron Maiden, and La Torre brings the Dickinson. This album is about 25 minutes longer than its predecessor, and some of it drags – they have the same single-groove problem, to a lesser extent, that Tate does – but it ends extremely well with the eight-minute title track, a new Queensryche classic. The blasé cover art is easily the worst thing about this record. It’s tight, it’s full of energy, and it fully establishes the Todd La Torre era of the band.
In some ways, fans like me win out here – we get two Queensryches, in essence, and that’s not a bad deal. Some have taken sides, but I’m happy to see what both parties bring to the table. I’m interested to hear how Tate’s story wraps up – he’s said both sequels will be in the can by the end of the year – and I’m jazzed to follow this new Queensryche as they open up new avenues. More than 30 years on, I still love Queensryche, and I always will.
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This week’s episode of Doctor Who was the first of a two-parter.
This is apparently going to be the norm this season, after years of single-part stories. In practice, what that means is I have no idea what I thought of this week’s episode, really. I liked it – it featured an underwater base under siege by ghosts, a tremendous performance by Peter Capaldi, and a cliffhanger to die for. But I won’t know how I feel about it until I see the second half.
I feel the same way about the new album by the Dears, Times Infinity Volume One. As you can tell by the title, it’s the first half of a whole, with the second half due early next year. And while I like the 38 minutes we have, it feels incomplete, like it can’t really stand on its own. It’s quick, which is a new experience for me – the Dears are a massive, dramatic powerhouse of a band, painting on huge canvases and filling them with galaxies of sound. Leader Murray Lightburn has one of those stunning voices that rises above whatever noise his band is making, so they take that as a cue to make as much noise as they can. And their songs are generally wide-angle epics of misery and hard-won hope.
So to say that a Dears album flies by without really sticking is making a statement. This one has everything I’m looking for – lead single “I Used to Pray for the Heavens to Fall” is a juggernaut, a loose-limbed bass-driven pop song sandwiched between monolithic riffs, and the rest of the album follows suit, building whole temples atop thick foundations. I love most of these songs, from the swaying “To Hold and Have” to the dark “Face of Horrors” to the hopeless closer “Onward and Downward,” sung by keyboardist Natalia Yanchak. (“In the end one will die alone, and in the end we’ll all die alone…”)
But there are only 10 short tracks, and that’s counting the fact that they’ve not only named the four seconds of silence between tracks four and five, but they’ve made it the title cut. It really feels like we need Times Infinity Volume Two to understand what Lightburn and his cohorts are getting at here, what they’re intending to say. While Volume One is a fine little slab of Dears-style dramatic rock, it feels slight, like it’s trying to stand on one leg. I need more – I need to finish this story to really know what I think of it.
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One certainly couldn’t accuse Deafheaven of making an incomplete statement with their third album, New Bermuda.
Quite the opposite, actually. This record plays like a single 47-minute song, each ebb and flow dependent on the whole to make sense. Over five long songs, this San Francisco quintet fully perfects their singular sound – they can be the heaviest, fastest, most extreme band in the world one minute and the dreamiest the next, gliding effortlessly from Meshuggah and Brutal Truth-style metal to Robin Guthrie-esque ambience. New Bermuda feels like staring at the sea from the tideline – the waves pull back, softly nipping at your toes, and then pummel you, filling your nose and mouth with water, drowning you in cacophonous confusion.
This is one of the most tightly controlled musical experiences I’ve had in a long time. The lyrics even read like a single poem, moving from heartsickness to despair to death. (The final lines: “Then further downward so that I can rest, cocooned by the heat of the ocean floor, in the dark, my flesh to disintegrate into consumption for the earth.”) Lead throat George Clarke spits out all of these delicate words at full, atonal screech, his voice becoming just another element of the loudest wall of noise you’ve ever heard.
Nothing about Deafheaven is chaotic, though. Every element of this album has been carefully sculpted to deliver what is an almost overpowering experience, one that is leaps beyond their already impressive first two records. Deafheaven are playing in a field of one, creating something unique and fascinating. When I first heard New Bermuda, I described it as a religious experience, and I stick by that. It’s like nothing else I’ve heard this year, and that may be a good thing – I wouldn’t want to be trampled, uplifted and hollowed out like this on a regular basis. New Bermuda is astonishing.
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Next week, more words about more records. Yay! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.