Ask most rock critics or fans to name the prototypal Angry Young Man of the late-Seventies wave of British singer-songwriters, and the response you'll probably get is Elvis Costello. That's not entirely fair to Joe Jackson, who, though not quite as prolific or ingenious a tunesmith as Costello, has shared with him and with that other celebrated boy with a problem Graham Parker a tendency to depict relationships and other manifestations of human folly (world affairs, the media, rock & roll) in a manner that can range from playfully sardonic to scathingly cynical. Nonetheless, Jackson, like his peers, has in his best work been able to temper this cynicism with a certain wistfulness, evident in stirring numbers like "It's Different for Girls," from I'm the Man, and "Real Men," from Night and Day. With their rich melodies and raw emotionalism, such songs have revealed the heart beneath Jackson's wry intellect.
The best material on Jackson's new album Laughter and Lust manages such revelations effortlessly. "When You're Not Around" and "The Other Me" are instantly infectious cuts that, in describing the dilemmas of men who can't seem to live with or without their women, insert chords full of bittersweet yearning into beautifully lean pop arrangements, evoking a more polished version of some of Jackson's most memorable early work. Indeed, whereas Jackson spent a good deal of the early Eighties dallying with genres ranging from salsa to big-band swing, on this album, aside from a few lingering flirtations the swing horns on "Goin' Downtown," the Latin-flavored percussion on the Fleetwood Mac song "Oh Well" and "Jamie G." Jackson's pretty much back to rock & roll basics: crashing guitars, driving bass lines and his characteristically skillful though never ostentatious piano work. Not that Jackson has grown any more reverent of popular music: "Hit Single" uses a cheesy organ riff and a naggingly insistent hook to mock the plight of a one-hit wonder who dies and goes to "Pure-Pop Heaven," where angels beg to hear his famous song but "not the whole damn album/Nobody has that much time." Similarly, "The Old Songs" scorns the classic tunes of the Fifties that keep "filling hearts with rebellion and romance" while "all our great expectations/Turn to alimony and remorse."
Jackson's virulent streak pops up elsewhere on Laughter and Lust as well. "Obvious Song," the straight-ahead rocker that opens the album, takes aim at an American rock star who drives around in a gasguzzling limo while preaching to a foreigner who makes his living by cutting down trees. "We gotta save this world," sings the rocker, "starting with your land." The deceptively upbeat "Fiction" resolves that love "grows like a flower or grows like a tumor/Love shows that God has a sense of humor." All this acrimony is finally redeemed, though, by "Drowning," the tender, haunting ballad about the helplessness of infatuation that closes the album. It's a composite of chords and melody fragments that you know you've heard before, but the vocals are so shatteringly direct and the piano and cello accompaniment so lovely that the effect is achingly poignant almost heartbreaking. I'm not sure whether an artist with Jackson's distaste for sentimentality would take that as a compliment, but it's intended as one. (RS 605)
(Posted: May 30, 1991)
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