Angry Old Men
The Joe Jackson Band Rocks on Volume 4

I’m not going to talk about the war.

Nope. Not at all. Not this week. Got far too many more important and frivolous things on my mind to restate my conviction that our crazed Texas cowboy-in-chief is leading us down the road to hell, with a smile on his face and whistling to the tune of Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad.” All this while declaring a second, less publicized war on the Constitution of the United States. Man, November 2004 can’t come fast enough.

Not going to talk about it. Let’s talk music.

* * * * *

I finally heard that damned new Linkin Park song, “Somewhere I Belong.” This is what the major labels are pumping as the next billion-seller? God, does that thing suck. Rap that the untalented hacks in P.O.D. would laugh at, shrill and whiny screaming in the chorus about God knows what horrible torture suburban white kids in all the latest fashions must be undergoing, and a complete lack of any original ideas at all. Ooh, listen, a turntable, that’s fucking novel. Or it was, in 1992.

Now, I don’t listen to the radio, and I rarely switch on MTV, so the fact that I’ve heard this piece of tripe several times in the last week means that the record label has paid for some serious saturation here. My friend Chris, who has recently started tuning in to “alternative” radio again, reports that this song is getting played three or more times a day on his local station. The song sounds very much like the band knew that the label would be behind anything they did, and therefore they didn’t have to try to make something compelling on its own.

Plus, all that rich kid whining is so hard to take seriously, especially after Ben Folds’ merciless savaging of the whole genre on “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” “Y’all don’t know what it’s like, being male, middle class and white, it’s a bitch if you don’t believe, listen up to my new CD…”

Speaking of Folds, I just heard this bit of coolness. He and two other Bens, Ben Kweller and Ben Lee, have teamed up to form a bizarre pop trio called, naturally, the Bens. They’ve recorded an EP, they’re touring now, and they plan to record an album, with songs coming from all three Bens. Folds plays piano, of course, and Kweller plays drums while Lee jams on bass.

But wait, it gets better.

They plan to begin each show with a rendition of “It’s All About the Benjamins.”

That’s too damn funny. Too bad they’ll never get on the radio, because we need to play Linkin Park 78 goddamn times an hour.

* * * * *

I have a documented love of pop music of all stripes, but there’s a special place in my heart for that style of angular British new wave guitar pop that arose in the late ’70s. Commonly known as the “angry young men” movement, the insurgence of this style brought to our shores several pop geniuses, most notably Elvis Costello, who was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Even though Costello just became eligible for induction, to my mind it’s about damn time, and the music biz’s recognition of his decades of stunning work is just cool beyond words.

But along with Costello came others, some just as brilliant. Two in particular followed Costello down similar career paths in the ’80s and ’90s, turning away from the venom of their early records to craft glorious chamber pop, and attempt recognition as serious composers. Those two are Andy Partridge of XTC and Joe Jackson, a pair of wunderkinds who deserve universal acclaim as much as Costello does.

The guy who first turned me on to this style and these musicians probably doesn’t even know he’s responsible. His name is John Guevremont, and he was the best teacher I ever had in high school. Guevremont made it his mission to challenge everyone in his classes to think for themselves, conjure their own ideas, and read critically. He even lent me his four-track recorder about eight years ago, in an effort to encourage my musical experiments, and I shamefully haven’t returned it yet. I’m pretty sure Guevremont is reading this, because he sent me an e-mail about a month ago, which I also haven’t returned because I lost the address. So if you’re reading, Mr. G., I’m sorry, and write me again.

Guevremont also was a pretty good songwriter in his day (and probably still is, but I just like making him feel old), and he would often use his own songs to illustrate certain tricks of the language to his students. One of those songs was called (“I Wanna Live In a) Fishbowl,” a sarcastic rant about fame and privacy rendered in a jagged, propulsive new wave sound that, while common when I was five years old, was completely new to the 16-year-old me. I was just getting into the Beatles and R.E.M., and hadn’t given much thought to what came between the two.

Little did I know that I had just heard my first Joe Jackson song.

Well, not really, of course, but the style of “Fishbowl” was obviously patterned on the first few wonderful Joe Jackson albums. Jackson and his swell band (drummer Dave Houghton, guitarist Gary Sanford and un-freaking-believable bassist Graham Maby) exploded on the scene in 1979 with the caustic single “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” from the equally caustic album Look Sharp. Jackson was definitely the angriest of these angry young men, spewing delightful bile like “Happy Loving Couples” and “Sunday Papers” to jaunty, aerobic beats, and he carried that style on for two more albums, I’m the Man and Beat Crazy.

And then a funny thing happened. Costello, Partridge and Jackson all seemed to decide, around the same time, to start pushing the limits of their sounds. Costello and Partridge stuck with pop, but built it up into lush orchestral sound sculptures, while Jackson turned to jazz (Jumpin’ Jive) and orchestral musics (Will Power, Night Music). There was no escaping the charges leveled at all three singers – they’ve gotten old, the critics said, and they’ve lost their edge. No one wants to hear Costello do The Juliet Letters, they want Armed Forces.

Of the three, Jackson slipped the lowest below the pop music radar, even though everything he’s turned out (yes, even Heaven and Hell, a concept album about – seriously – the seven deadly sins) has been excellent. While Costello has remained a decent seller and Partridge has had sporadic hits (“Dear God,” “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”), Jackson hasn’t been on the radio since 1982’s “Steppin’ Out.” He even bemoaned the short attention span of the general public on “Hit Single,” a great song off his 1991 album Laughter and Lust. “Don’t give us the whole album,” he snarled, “who has that much time?” He followed that album up with more “serious” music that was unjustly ignored.

And then a funny thing happened. All three angry old men started plugging back in and reliving the old days. Partridge led the charge with XTC’s super-cool Wasp Star in 2000, and last year Costello surprised everyone with When I Was Cruel, a decent attempt at rocking out. Now comes Jackson, who has reassembled the Joe Jackson Band to record and release Volume 4, his first real pop-rock album since 1980. And surprise surprise, it’s absolutely fantastic.

There’s always the danger when returning to an old sound that the fire will have been extinguished in the intervening years. Costello came up somewhat short, for example, on roughly half of Cruel. Not Jackson, though. Volume 4 is just as venomous and sneering as volumes one through three, if a bit mellower. (The cover art even contains a sly reference to said mellowing – think Volume as in knob.) This is not a pastiche, however – it’s a new Joe Jackson album that continuously nods towards the old ones without aping them.

And the songs are just superb. First single “Awkward Age” is my favorite song of 2003 so far, the kind of instant classic Costello has somehow failed to write since Brutal Youth. “Little Bit Stupid” is a stomper of the highest order, and the twisty “Fairy Dust” sets social commentary a la “Real Men” atop a whirlwind of odd times and beats. Closer “Bright Grey” juxtaposes melody and dissonance over a powerhouse thrash beat. You’d never guess these guys were pushing fifty, so raw and propulsive is the sound. Jackson only stumbles once – “Dirty Martini” is banal and way too long.

But it’s when Jackson slows things down that he really shines, as has always been the case. “Love at First Light” is a smoky ballad fueled by Jackson’s piano, and even though it borrows a little much of “The Times They Are A’Changing,” it’s lovely. Ditto for “Blue Flame” and “Chrome,” but best of all is “Still Alive,” as bitter a breakup song as has even been written. “Something keeps on beating in there, I guess my heart survived,” Jackson sings, concluding, “I know I said I couldn’t live without you, but I’m still alive.”

Bottom line: if you like well-written, well-played pop music, this is chock full of it. Jackson has successfully revisited his past without sounding old and worn out – if anything, he sounds invigorated, like reuniting his band has reignited a fire that’s been dead for 20 years. The limited edition even comes with a six-track live CD made up of 2002 renditions of 1979 classics, and it’s obvious he hasn’t lost a note. If a guy Jackson’s age can still bellow and snarl through “Got the Time,” then Costello has no excuse. This is a truly swell album from a true genius, one that will hopefully rekindle interest in his equally swell catalog.

Next week, the Lost Dogs, most likely.

And goodnight, Mr. Guevremont, wherever you are.

See you in line Tuesday morning.