Music Reviews: Joe Jackson

Body and Soul

This is one of the few CDs that brings me out of a funk. From the slightly sleazy rhythm of "Cha Cha Loco" to the outright optimism and encouragement of "Go For It", it has just the right tone to get me thinking about the possibilities of the world, not its limitations.

Mr. Jackson seems to like dichotomies. Yet despite the apparent subject of the title, the comparison seems to be between reflection and action. "Loisaida" is a strong and brooding instrumental; yet "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)" is relentlessly upbeat. The lovers in "Happy Ending" might be frightened by the world around them, but even those in trouble can get a second chance, like the lover in "The Verdict".

The synthesis of reflection is achieved in the closing piece, "Heart of Ice". The extended beginning consists of a simple figure which is repeated and extended by a variety of instruments. It gradually builds into a refrain, and finally the voices come in:

Take a knife
Cut out this heart of ice
Hold it high
Walk into the sun

And reflection gives way to action.

This album seems to be rather an overlooked one in Jackson's music. It's a pity, since there is some strong material here. But then, it's Joe Jackson - is that a surprise?

Heaven & Hell

This is a tough album to review. It's definitely his most orchestral work to date. Superficially it's most similar to his album Night Music. The album's subject is the Seven Deadly Sins.

Billed as "Joe Jackson & Friends", the guest artists include Joy Askew, Brad Roberts, Jane Siberry, Dawn Upshaw, and Suzanne Vega on vocals. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg provides a devilish violin.

The opening, "Prelude", sets the stage for the first sin, gluttony. "Fugue 1/More is More" is one of the most visual pieces I've heard in a long time. I can imagine the scene as if I were there: as rain hammers down on London and the Thames rise into flood, a medieval feast reigns in a pub, steadfastly ignoring the people and city washing away around them. A study in black and red.

Suzanne Vega gives us the voice of a fallen angel. Brad Roberts is the voice of lugubriousness. Joe Jackson ironically reprises his New Wave role of Angry Young Man in "Right".

The scariest song is "Tuzla". With its strict lessons of worth is a war zone (A pot for the rain = a pair of shoes = 2 hand grenades), human life is reduced to that which is bought and sold. What is the worth of a heart - or a head?

The songs change from the classically sung Latin of "Angel" to buckets pounded on the streets of New York City. The arrangements range from solo instrument to full orchestration. Amazingly enough, it works.

I never realized Sloth, Gluttony and Pride could be so much fun. But be warned: you might well see yourself in this mirror. Then watch out for the violin; for it leads you onward, and downward.

A Critic's Choice for best of 1997.

For more information, including Joe Jackson's descriptions of the songs, see his Web site.


2001-10-29. I finally noticed that this enhanced CD has short video clips of Joe Jackson discussing each song. While it's interesting to see which sins JJ identifies with, the proto-Shockwave animation demonstrates that medium's failings. For example, right after JJ talks about the role of the two female voices in "Angel", or the structure of "A Bud and a Slice", it would be great to be jump directly to the corresponding song. The interface doesn't allow that. Its limitations made it frustrating.

Also, it would have been nice to hear Mr. Jackson's comments on working with other famous musicians. Unfortunately, they're not mentioned at all. Perhaps the commentary was recorded before the contracts were signed.

Last updated 29 October 2001
All contents ©1998-2002 Mark L. Irons