Joe Jackson has long been one of my favorite musicians. I shall not do him the typical disservice of comparing him to the other “angry young men” of late 70′s British rock (though I will name check both Elvis Costello and Graham Parker) because he followed a very different path from either of them. During Jackson’s lengthy career he has restlessly explored various genres and seems to have found success in spite of himself as opposed to through any deliberate effort. Jackson’s big hits paint an inadequate portrait of his body of work and musical interests. While I’m certainly not going to rectify this (I missed at least a full decade of his career completely), I hope I can expose my few readers to a few of Jackson’s gems that they may have overlooked.
As is always the case when I write about an artist who is especially well represented in my library, I’m going to be writing about his songs in alphabetical order by album. This means that, for the most part, this is not going to be a chronological look at Jackson’s work. On the other hand, I once owned a ton of his early work on vinyl and, rather than purchase new copies of those albums when I was shifting to CDs, I purchased Steppin’ Out: The Very Best Of Joe Jackson which does include most of my favorite songs by him from 1979 through 2000. I’ve tried to fill in some gaps by downloading some of my favorite album tracks, but I’m really barely scratching the surface. For example, his surprisingly enjoyable “classical” album Will Power was a favorite during study sessions in college and I’ve not downloaded that at all yet.
Anyhow, let’s jump into it, shall we?
Big World is an exceptional album that Jackson released in 1986. He’d just had a mini-run of hits in the U.S. from his previous two albums (Night & Day and Body & Soul) and clearly had a little capital to burn with his record company because its an unusual record for four reasons.
First, he recorded it live. This is not to say it sounds like a live album. While it has the urgency of a live record and the typical commitment to excellent musicianship that is a hallmark of Jackson’s work, the audience was instructed to withhold their applause until after each song was finished. If you’re expecting to hear a bunch of applause, chatter and noise, you’re not going to hear it here. In this regard, the album is an absolute triumph of capturing this (then new) set of songs in their native environment.
Second, most live album are in the vein of “greatest hits with applause” style albums. This set is entirely original.
Third, Big World is a concept album of sorts. Most of the songs have something to do with living as an international citizen. More on that as we look at the individual songs.
Finally, this was one of the first albums Jackson recorded during the rise of the CD era. He made an album that would completely fill a standard CD, which means it was slightly longer than a full album. As he was deciding what to cut for the vinyl LP (not entirely an unusual situation during the late 80′s), he asked the record company of they could just release it as a 3-sided album and charge the same price as one would for a single album. Remarkably, they agreed. I managed to be at least somewhat unaware of this by purchasing it on cassette.
I loved this album and listened to it endlessly in 1986. However, I only have six songs in my current library (three of which are on that greatest hits collection, so we’ll be listening to those later, and one of which I just downloaded and I’ll write about at the very end of this whole process). As per usual, I may well download the rest of the album before we wrap around to the letter “J” again.
“We Can’t Live Together” opens with a nod to the fact that the romantic situation he’s about to sing about is a first world problem – if this couple lived in certain cultures, she would be subject to a pre-arranged marriage while he’d be off sitting in a cafe somewhere. With that idea in mind, the lyrics address how the couple in this song keep finding themselves together even though they just aren’t right for each other – they can’t live together, but they can’t stay apart, as he sings. The first verse lingers in my head – this relationship is a disaster, but they’re really genuinely lucky to be able to be enjoy it (when it can be enjoyed). In other places in the world, they’d not be able to enjoy this luxury.
Musically, the song builds from a simple vocals over bass and drum construction to a dramatic chorus featuring the full band and back-up singers. The bridge in particular (“Why can’t you be more like me/or me like you”) features a fine, emotive vocal performance by Jackson. One of my favorites from this period.