While his previous release was something of “I’ve got enough songs for an album,” Fool keeps it truly simple: eight songs, four per side, recorded quickly after woodshedding them on a summer tour, recorded after the last stop (in Boise) of all places. It’s short enough to get one’s head around, but substantial. There is a recurring theme if you want one, but Fool is really just a collection of strong songs. There’s plenty of piano, plus the indispensable Graham Maby on bass. The guitarist and drummer, who have been touring with him for a few years, carry enough of the vibe of the original Joe Jackson Band while also handling the quieter stuff deftly. Even after making records for 40 years, he can be forgiven for repeating himself, but at least he has the good taste to revisit his better tunes and influences; listen for echoes of XTC, Steely Dan, and even the Beatles.
With an ominous rumble, “Big Black Cloud” balances doom-and-gloom lyrics with a plea for salvation in the choruses, over heavy piano and drums, with some power chords. “Fabulously Absolute” manages to combine punk, new wave, and catchy pop in the arrangement, with sarcastic verses and great transitions. Take a moment to listen to the high-speed syncopated guitar-and-bass combo in the break. “Dave” is a portrait of an average Joe (pun intended, we’ll explain shortly) with a “mind like a sieve” and a “head like a brick” who goes about his simple day, not caring much past his breakfast and pointless job. The chorus basically ponders whether, compared to those of us who wring our hands over the big issues and striving beyond our grasp, Dave may be better off. We also wonder whether the protagonist’s name is intentional, being that the auteur’s given name is actually David. Things travel to near-smooth jazz territory on “Strange Land”, but the piece, lyrics and music and all, rises above that simple label for a gorgeous meditation.
Things pick up for “Friend Better”, which revisits yet again his old favorite “The In Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis, backed by a drumbeat straight off of Blaze Of Glory. The title track is a hodgepodge of styles, with a faux-Mideastern motif, Shakespearean quotes, detours into samba, and shouted lyrics like its counterpart on side one. We’d like to read some further autobiography into “32 Kisses”, a pensive yet wistful look back at a relationship from a mature perspective, choosing to concentrating on the smaller, happier details. It’s a lowkey setup for “Alchemy”, the long closer that approaches lounge territory but still sounds just like him. And if you think about it, it describes what he does for a living.
There’s a lot that sounds familiar here, in the comfortable sense of the word. Fool is his best album since the excellent Rain, and a much more logical follow-up than that Duke Ellington experiment was. The sequence is wonderfully paced, and the sides really do mirror each other somewhat, reinforcing the comedy and tragedy theme in the artwork. Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple.
Joe Jackson Fool (2019)—4