Schleppin' out

Joe Jackson lugs the baggage of a onetime pop star into an ambitious middle age

There had been, of course, a time when Jackson could write short, sharp nuggets with the best of them: Look Sharp! and I'm the Man were furious, hilarious records filled with sneering songs about fools in love and other suckers. His voice was nasal and stand-offish; he recited lyrics as though they were threats, and so he was labeled punk by association; you always got the feeling he was making fun of rock and roll from a close distance. He had, after all, attended the Royal Academy of Music on a piano scholarship when he was 16; while there he also studied percussion, composition, and orchestration, and then spent a little time in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and playing at the local Playboy Club in Portsmouth, England. Quite by accident, he fell into the rock-and-roll thing, playing in pub cover-bands while he worked on his orchestration. He no more intended to be a punk-rock Irving Berlin than...Elvis Costello, who had long dreamed of being England's Frank Sinatra.

"I quite often get portrayed as, you know, 'Joe Jackson thinks he's too good to give us some good three-minute pop songs,'" he says, laughing like someone who doesn't think what he's just said is too funny. "And I'd rather have a good three-minute pop song than a bad symphony, but people are different and have different abilities, and I'm trying to be true to my own abilities and ambitions.

"I think when you're younger, you want to be part of the in-crowd in some sort of way. Even though I always had this reputation as being defiant misfit or something, I think we all want to have an audience, we all want to be accepted and loved, and no one likes to be told that no one's interested anymore or that their record can't get on the radio or these sort of things."

Jackson's lone stateside Top-10 single, "Steppin' Out," came 15 years ago; he broke into the Top 20 in 1983 ("Breaking Us in Two") and '84 ("You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)"), then disappeared from the charts forever, bouncing from genre to genre, from label to label, from here to nowhere. By '87's Will Power, his records were dismissed even before they were released, written off as pretentious exercises instead of meaningful statements. Critics who once adored Jackson, lumping him in with Costello and Graham Parker, turned against him the moment he stopped writing show-tune love songs and started thinking bigger; they labeled him a dilettante, a man whose talent couldn't keep up with his ambition. By the time of '91's Laughter and Lust, the critics were using his records as drink coasters; he couldn't even buy a negative review. As for record buyers, Jackson's albums were shipped straight to the cut-out bins. If nothing else, he thought, Laughter and Lust would sell to the fans who didn't desert him with Will Power.

But it didn't. And it sent Jackson into a funk that lasted for three years, till the release of Night Music in 1994--a record about which one magazine remarked, "The more he tries, the sillier he gets." It was, for better or worse, his first stab at classical-pop, at melding Will Power with Blaze of Glory. Heartbreaking in places, stomach-aching in others, it was one of those records you really can't listen to, but begrudgingly respect all the same--if only because you know the guy was trying, and he had everything to lose.

"At the end of the Laughter and Lust tour, I was just burnt," Jackson recalls. "I just thought, 'Why the hell am I doing this?'

"It was devastating. It was the worst period of my life. Night Music was sort of my recovery record. It was, I don't know what you call it, but that was sort of part of a healing process really, making that record."

But Virgin was still waiting for another Look Sharp!, not Will Power Redux; not long after the release of Night Music, Virgin and Jackson parted ways, and it was another three years before Jackson again released a record.

Heaven & Hell, in the end, is hardly a departure for Jackson--at least no more than The Juliet Letters was for Elvis Costello. It takes the intimate, orchestral pop of Night Music to its logical end--a sweeping, symphonic concept album, though Jackson himself refers to it as "a baby step outside conventional pop." It's one of those records made by a musician who was this close to packing it in till he realized he had nothing to lose, and it's hardly a masterpiece: Where once Jackson could get a laugh without even telling the punchline, now he labors to get the joke out. And the music is often so overwrought, it plays like parody, most notably on the fugues that bookend the record. But there are moments--such as on the Suzanne Vega-Dawn Upshaw duet "Angel," on which two women (one an angel, the other a "fallen angel") fight for a man's soul--where Jackson captures the moment before a laugh turns into a frown; it hints at better things, suggests that Jackson will no longer stumble backward, as he did only a few years ago.

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