Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
No one can accuse Joe Jackson of being predictable. His 40-year career finds him hopscotching from punky pop to big band jazz/blues, classical, prog and even a swinging tribute to Duke Ellington, the latter with guests as varied as the Roots’ ?uestlove and Iggy Pop. His previous 2015 release found him recording four songs in four different cities with four different bands. So calling this follow-up a return to form is somewhat misleading, since Jackson never had much of an identifiable style, at least after his first three albums.
It is, however, a back-to-basics, eight-track collection with songs built around the somewhat vague concept of “comedy and tragedy.” The sessions were recorded with his touring band after the end of a long tour, which provides a sense of continuity purposefully missing from his last studio set. For the 40th anniversary tour behind it, Jackson promises to feature tracks from one album released during each of the past four decades, a nice change from the norm of playing his first disc in its entirety.
Musically, Fool is thought-provoking pop/rock focusing on Jackson’ piano, voice, lyrics and the tight, tensile arrangements of a band clearly in tune with his approach. From the opening “Big Black Cloud,” where Jackson rails against middle-class life (“Get on the treadmill and run, run, run”), to the Elvis Costello-styled title track that shifts into a middle-Eastern section with sitar and even a short bass solo, Jackson is never less than eclectic and often unpredictable, even with this relatively standard pop/rock palette. There are strains of his biggest hit Night and Day in “Strange Land,” a ballad that seems to question his position as an artist (“Is this a strange land/ or am I a stranger?”) with a more ornate, structured and darker slant. He questions whether rushing around the world isn’t “wasting all our time” as “Dave” spends his days working the same job in the song of that name.
A few rockers like the breathless “Fabulously Absolute” are reminiscent of Jackson’s older angry man persona with driving drums, stinging guitar and irate words sung from the viewpoint of a bully who knows he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world (“I’m just somebody to deplore/Someone who doesn’t know the score.”) The closing “Alchemy” is a Latin-tinged ballad boasting one of Jackson’s prettiest piano melodies and an intriguing yet subtle concept that connects a magician’s profession with the world’s socio-political situation.
Forty years is a long time to hang around in the pop music world. And even if Joe Jackson is no longer the mega-star of the ‘80s, it’s clear from the consistently innovative, often challenging Fool that he is far from a faded has-been. On the contrary, it’s good enough to suggest his best might still be ahead of him.