Sunday, October 26, 2008

Joe Jackson - Big World

Joe Jackson's Big World is one of his underrated high points. It's many things to not as many people as it should be. It's a live album without a shred of crowd noise. It was that rare gimmick of a configuration: a THREE sided LP. And it seemed to have already been out of print before Joe's contract with A&M expired in 1989. But I can hear you there in the 'Net's hinterlands saying, "Now come on, Murphy; you're telling me that this one undersung LP of Joe's is as good as Look Sharp! and Night And Day?"

Well, yeah. I guess I am.

All I'm saying is that the batch of songs that he assembled for this album are, almost to a song, all-killer-no-filler. Joe was still on a creative-and-commercial success streak, having released his previous album Body And Soul in 1985. That album yielded not only the enduring hit "You Can't Get What You Want ('Til You Know What You Want)", but also boasted such classics as the majestic "The Verdict" and the tender "Be My Number Two". So how to follow it up?

Joe Jackson chose to follow up by releasing the wonderful Big World album in 1986. It is a live album merely in the technical sense of the definition; it was indeed recorded in front of an audience. However, the audiences lucky enough to be at those shows were strictly forbidden from reacting at the end of the songs, as they were being recorded. Joe felt that the presence of a live audience lent a sense of immediacy and forced the musicians to get it right the first time, as opposed to having the luxury of take-after-take in the studio. The concept of releasing live albums of all-new material wasn't a new one in '86; Jackson Browne had already released Running On Empty, and Neil Young had given us Time Fades Away. However, it very well could have been the first time (but not the last time) an artist released a live album masquerading as a studio album. You don't hear a shred of crowd noise. Apparently, the recording process wasn't without its share of blown takes due to over-appreciative audience members. One song (the glorious closer, "Man In The Street") had to use a soundcheck take, as none of the takes recorded in front of an audience were usable. I don't know the circumstances behind that song's performances, but if it was due to audiences cheering at its conclusion, that's perfectly understandable.

The album is divided into three parts, falling at the logical LP side breaks; these divisions are carried over to the CD format of the album as well, where Side One becomes Part One, and so on. It's really hard to explain the general theme of each the three sides. The songs will have a musical commonality to them within each album side, but lyrically, the songs don't often coincide with each other's tone or subject matter. Ultimately, they do work well together as three separate parts of a whole.

The album's first side is full of eager songs, uptempo and generally positive. Right off the bat, Joe cleverly references Hugo Montenegro's theme to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in "Wild West", a tribute to the rough-and-ready frontier cowboys of yore. Next up, "Right And Wrong" provides a moralistic song whose message that party politics shouldn't factor into how we deal with each other in the world. Sure, Joe has skewed toward sarcastic moralism in some of his songs; for my money, I don't mind it, as he doesn't usually beat you over the head with his moralism. Oddly enough, except for one reference to the Commies, the lyrics are just as relevant in today's presidential election as they were in the '80s when the song was written. "(It's A) Big World" is an exotic Indian-themed travelogue of what awaits the adventurous global tourist; his wry sense of humor pokes fun as it chronicles, and then delivers that zinger: "It's a big world, so much to do / And plenty of room for me and you." ("People, why are we fighting?" I hear Mick Jagger intone to the angry Altamont crowd.) "Precious Time" is a frenetically-paced song in which the singer regrets certain lost opportunities in his life, and how he'd love to fix those parts of his life if he only had the, you guessed it, precious time. "Tonight And Forever" should be one of those songs which ought to be ranked in public opinion as high as "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", or even "Couldn't I Just Tell You". Joe doesn't shy away from spilling out just how complicated and contradictory this crazy thing called love and attraction is:
Don't you find this whole thing a little strange
I don't even know if I like you
It's never like you see on a movie screen
But there's something that you do to me
The song is a bangup way to close out the first side.

Side Two is a beautiful quartet of songs. Even though the pace here is slower, none of the songs are any less wonderful, important, at times even breath-taking (you thought you'd escape the over-the-top hyperbole of my previous long-form record review? Not a chance.) He begins with "Shanghai Sky", a cinematic piano-based reverie which manages to achieve the musical equivalent of an awe-inspiring sunrise. The lyric, for as poetic as it expresses how beauty in the world can triumph over cynicism, is almost secondary to the gentle tune. "Fifty Dollar Love Affair" takes a sauntering beat, an understated guitar, and most affectingly, an accordion, to conjure up an Italian port town, and the simultaneous beauty of the places a sailor might visit, yet shines the ugly spotlight on said sailor's search for a little love for sale. It's almost a mixed message; the tune seems so inviting to whichever port of call, yet the lyric comes down mercilessly on the boorish sailor. With "We Can't Live Together", Joe cleverly weaves the lyrics in such a fashion that not only can this slow burner's lyrics play out a love-torn couple's frustrations ("We can't live together / But we can't stay apart"), they can also be easily extrapolated to the sometimes uneasy pas de deux between the world's cultures as well. Finallly, "Forty Years" tells of the strange irony that for all of the wonderful good will that the countries who made up the Allies of WWII built up for each other during the post-war days, here we are now forty years later and things are back to the way they were: distant. The message of this song hasn't changed now that it's sixty-something years after that war. The piano fades away gracefully, as Side Two comes to a close.

Side Three immediately picks up the pace from the relative peace that was Side Two. We're dropped into the maelstrom with the frantic "Survival", a song which cleverly references his earlier classic "Got The Time" with its stutter-stop guitar, mad bass, and skittering drums. Once this song whacks to a close, there's no time to catch your breath as you find yourself in the sensual "Soul Kiss", which uses jazzy piano figures and a slinky rhythm section to communicate its protagonist's search for connection. It's a definite high point of the album. On "The Jet Set", Joe sets his sarcasm on stun. The song spares no sneering to the class of tourist so self-absorbed that they forget to realize that it is they who are the ones imposing on the people whose countries they're visiting. "Tango Atlantico" is a clever song; the lyric references what sounds like a WWII general trying to impress some beautiful lady. And to a small extent, that would be true. But then Joe kicks in the chorus:
And you may think that this song comes too late
But lest we forget
This tango Atlantico isn't over yet
The song immediately gets recontextualized into a cautious look at the sometimes glorious, sometimes strained relationship between the USA and Great Britain. The general is the USA; the lady the Queen. Clever fellow, that Joe Jackson. "Home Town" is another of the album's high points; a lilting melody belies a lament for the world the singer wishes he could return to. And "Man In The Street" closes the album with a bang. It's verses coil around, waiting to pounce, then the choruses jump out with a soaring tune. Live, this song must have been a wonderful thing to behold, all glorious lines and thundering drums.

Finally, what of this three-sided LP business? Well, it's been implemented differently with other releases. Utopia released their 1982 self-titled LP (on Network) as a double LP on which the second record had the contents on Side Three on both sides of the record. For Big World, the fourth side is indeed blank as a sheet; one lazy spiral goes from the outer edge to the run-off groove, and all you hear are the slight crackles of dust and occasional pop as the needle casually strolls its way towards a label which helpfully informs you the listener that "There Is No Music On This Side". Apparently, at the time this LP came out, people were still ignorant enough to complain to their record stores that they couldn't hear music on side four. Interestingly enough, the sequencing* of the cassette format completely reworks the four songs of side two almost indiscriminately into the song orders of the first and third sides. There is a reason that the album is structured into three portions; to mess with the experience for a format's convenience is to do both the album and you the listener a true disservice. And my verdict after comparing the LP and CD versions for sound quality, the LP wins out slightly. The bass is deeper, the sound not as harsh. But either way you go, you need to buy yourself a copy of Big World. Joe Jackson made a hell of an album with this one, and it's a crime that more of the world doesn't know about it.

*That cassette sequence, for those of you who want to try the experience yourself (and screw up this album's mojo in the process) is as follows:
Side A Wild West - Right And Wrong - (It's A) Big World - Shanghai Sky - Fifty Dollar Love Affair - Precious Time - Tonight And Forever
Side B - Survival - Soul Kiss - The Jet Set - Tango Atlantico - Home Town - We Can't Live Together - Forty Years - Man In The Street


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