Saturday, July 16, 2011

Joe Jackson 7: Big World

After a few years of genre-jumping, Joe Jackson returned to something resembling the rock of his first album, but with a twist. In a departure for the ultra-processing of the decade, he recorded the songs for Big World over a period of three days in front of an audience at a theater in New York City, using a compact band and four backup singers, Joe himself switching from piano to melodica to accordion as the songs dictate. He carefully edited out any crowd noise, but the result is an album that definitely sparkles with the energy of a live performance, rendering the experiment a success.
And if that wasn’t all, the original vinyl contained the songs on three sides of two records; the label on the fourth side reads “THERE IS NO MUSIC ON THIS SIDE.” (We played it anyway to make sure; there isn’t.) This effectively divides the album into three parts, which doesn’t always translate to the cassette or CD format.
Part One fades in with “Wild West”, complete with Clint Eastwood flute, but goes right for the throat in its questioning of The American Way. The theme continues in “Right And Wrong”, complete with timely baseball commentary for the local crowd. “(It’s A) Big World” aims for something grand, but meanders around an ersatz Arabian riff without actually going anywhere. “Precious Time” is a breathless cipher, but all is well with the driving, yearning “Tonight And Forever”, another song that should have been a smash hit single.
Part Two takes it down a notch or so, with four songs on the dreamier side. “Shanghai Sky” is a gorgeous meditation on the piano, repeating the theme to ask “how the world got so small”, and playing it again as it started. “Fifty Dollar Love Affair” puts us in the middle of a film noir scene, yet the action is contemporary. “We Can’t Live Together” starts low and sultry but winds up with the angst of the choruses and guitar solo. Then it’s back to politics with a stately study of the previous “Forty Years” and the evolving state of the world.
After that, Part Three seems slight, but its charms emerge. “Survival” pounds a riff into the floor with not a lot of substance to back it up, followed by “Soul Kiss”, which decries the dearth of substance in pop culture over nice piano work. “The Jet Set” is a humorous narrative by a typical ugly tourist, then “Tango Atlantico” uses the dance metaphor to ridicule Reagan and Thatcher. The nostalgia of “Home Town” has certainly added to its appeal over the years, plus it’s got a fantastic opening line: “Of all the stupid things I could have thought, this was the worst.” “Man In The Street” brings it all home by unleashing the Rock; strangely enough, it was recorded during rehearsals, with no audience present.
Despite peaking at #34 on the Billboard album chart, Big World was hardly the commercial or critical success it should have been. Today it endures as an authentic, BS-free artifact from the ‘80s, unknown to many. And to add insult to injury, it was out of print for years, making it a steal for anyone who found it in the used bin, but is currently available for streaming.

Joe Jackson Big World (1986)—4

1 comment:

  1. It was in fact my great pleasure to be a part of the rehearsals for this amazing recording, completely by accident. While an important part of my experience on this fragile planet.....I will refrain from boring you with the details. Needless to say, during the entire show in
    NYC we were reminded in only a way that JJ could articulate to "stay quiet and avoid applause, even if you think this actually sounds good"........ It should also be noted that this was one of the very first "live" recordings captured digitally - which put a noticeably more sterile feel to the sound. Very experimental and edgy - but Joe knew he could pull it off. Lyrical analysis aside, the musicianship speak for itself - live, powerful, tight, genuis, Joe.

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