Friday, December 20, 2013

Night And Day: Joe Jackson Goes Full Yuppie

And then Joe Jackson ... became Billy Joel.

Well, that's probably not how he'd put it, but pretty much, yeah.

And he started selling like Billy Joel too. Although Night And Day was Joe Jackson's most commercially successful record (peaking at #3 in the UK and #4 in the US), most rock critics don't necessarily think that it's his best record. Well, I do. But saying that it is his best album is not to say that it is a perfect album. Night and Day is almost two albums, in fact - and not necessarily a "night" album and a "day" album (come again?). On the one hand it's Joe's "latin jazz" album, and on the other hand it's his "Cole Porter/Irving Berlin/Rodgers & Hart/Great American Songbook" album. It's like he wanted to do two albums and he sort of combined them into one, or maybe he was eating chips and salsa while watching a Busby Berkeley marathon, I don't know. In some ways, this mixture doesn't exactly "work," but compared to the rest of the Top 40 music of 1982, I'd say it certainly beats the competition. Not everyone is quite as generous as I am, however; even though Stephen Thomas Erlewine gives the album four-and-a-half stars, his actual AMG review is surprisingly critical and harsh:
1982 will forever be known as the year that the punks got class -- or at least when Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, rivals for the title of Britain's reigning Angry Young Man -- decided that they were not just rockers, but really songwriters in the Tin Pan Alley tradition ... In retrospect, the ambitions of these two 27-year-olds (both born in August 1954, just two weeks apart) seem a little grandiose, and if Imperial Bedroom didn't live up to its masterpiece marketing campaign (stalling at number 30 on the charts without generating a hit), it has garnered a stronger reputation than Night and Day, which was a much more popular album, climbing all the way to number four on the U.S. charts, thanks to the Top Ten single "Steppin' Out." Night and Day had greater success because it's sleek and bright, entirely more accessible than the dense, occasionally unwieldy darkness of Imperial Bedroom. Plus, Jackson plays up the comparisons to classic pop songwriting by lifting his album title from Cole Porter, dividing the record into a "night" and "day" side, and then topping it off with a neat line drawing of him at his piano in a New York apartment on the cover. All of these classy trappings are apparent on the surface, which is the problem with the record: it's all stylized, with the feel eclipsing the writing, which is kind of ironic considering that Jackson so clearly strives to be a sophisticated cosmopolitan songwriter here. He gets the cosmopolitan, big-city feel down pat; although the record never delivers on the "night" and "day" split, with the latter side feeling every bit as nocturnal as the former, his blend of percolating Latin rhythms, jazzy horns and pianos, stylish synths, and splashy pop melodies uncannily feel like a bustling, glitzy evening in the big city. On that front, Night and Day is a success, since it creates a mood and sustains it very well. Where it lets down is the substance of the songs. At a mere nine tracks, it's a brief album even by 1982 standards, and it seems even shorter because about half the numbers are more about sound than song. "A Slow Song" gets by on its form, not what it says, while "Target" and "Cancer" are swinging Latin-flavored jams that disappear into the air. "Chinatown" is a novelty pastiche that's slightly off-key, but nowhere near as irritating as "T.V. Age," where Jackson mimics David Byrne's hyper-manic vocal mannerisms. These all fit the concept of the LP and they're engaging on record, but they're slight, especially given Jackson's overarching ambition -- and their flimsiness is brought into sharp relief by the remaining four songs, which are among Jackson's very best ... If all of Night and Day played at this level, it would be the self-styled masterpiece Joe Jackson intended it to be. Instead, it is a very good record that delivers some nice, stylish pleasures; but its shortcomings reveal precisely how difficult it is to follow in the tradition of Porter and Gershwin.
Well, fine, Mr. Erlewine, let's see you try to make a New Wave/Latin jazz-pop/Tin Pan Alley album. In essence, while I agree with many of these observations, I'm not sure Erlewine really sees the forest for the trees. He sounds like someone who heard that the album was great, and then when he actually listened to it, he felt disappointed. I, on the other hand, heard that the album was pretty good but not a classic, and so when I actually listened to it, I felt like it slightly surpassed my expectations. OK, so Joe didn't quite fulfill his ambitions. Why punish a guy for trying to be ambitious ... in the '80s? All right, so he focused a little too much on the surface textures. Why is that a "problem"? Why does everything need to have "shortcomings"? Hardly any other mainstream '80s pop albums contained so many ideas. If it's a mess, at least it's an inviting mess. Imperial Bedroom can go to hell. That's my two cents. All right, Stephen, we're cool now.

At the time, I think most people were too shocked by the sudden appearance of Joe Gershwin to complain that he didn't quite measure up to his predecessors George and Ira. I mean, if there were those expecting Joe to slip back into his fiery power pop mode after the "stylistic detour" of Jumpin' Jive, the sprightly, percussive sizzle of "Another World" quickly put that notion to rest (although the hypnotic mood is almost derailed by his less-than-soothing vocal entry). "I was so low/People almost made me give up trying/Always said no/Then I turned around/Saw someone smiling/I stepped into another world." Uh ... are you sure you're talking about New York, Joe? Well, the Big Apple is Little Earl's favorite city in the whole wide world, so he certainly doesn't need to convince me. Jackson is putting on a top hat, coat and tails, he's about to hit the town like an '80s Fred Astaire, and I'm about to join him. He may not be able to dance like Fred Astaire, but with that thin, partially balding physique, he certainly has the visual resemblance nailed.

Suddenly, on Track 2, [Billy] Joe[l] Jackson attempts to locate a suitable Chinese restaurant, only to end up in the wrong part of town, while employing a racially insensitive accent and Oriental musical motif along the way. Most darkly comic line: "I took a right/Then I took a wrong turn/Someone asked me/For a quarter/It didn't seem to fit/He didn't look much like a Chinaman." You and Christopher Columbus, Joe.

As the night (or day?) wears on during Joe's subterranean journey through the Manhattan streets, he appears to pop in and out of several clubs. Yes, as Erlewine notes, cuts like "Target" and "Cancer" are more like improvised interludes than full-fledged songs, but not every song has to be a hit single, you know? Besides, on an album that reveals a much more socially outgoing Joe, "Cancer" allows him to show his more pessimistic, and somewhat libertarian, side. It's like he's trying to say, "Why don't you just ban fun while you're at it?" At least while he's busy complaining, he's pairing up his grouchiness with a delectable salsa groove. We're all going to die of cancer - but I can dance to it!
Everything gives you cancer
Everything gives you cancer
There's no cure, there's no answer
Everything gives you cancer

Don't touch that dial
Don't try to smile
Just take this pill
It's in your file

Don't work hard
Don't play hard
Don't plan for the graveyard

Don't work by night
Don't play by day
You'll feel all right
But you will pay

No caffeine
No protein
No booze or

"A Slow Song," the show-stopper closer that was Joe's admirable attempt to write a "song about songs," has a nice dramatic build-up and some memorable turns of phrase, but I think Joe forgot to write a chorus:
Music has charms they say
But in some people's hands
It becomes a savage beast
Can't they control it
Why don't they hold it back

You see my friend and me
Don't have an easy day
And at night we dance not fight
And we need the energy
If not the sympathy

But I'm brutalized by bass
And terrorized by treble
I'm open to change my mood but
I always get caught in the middle

And I get tired of DJ's
Why's it always what he plays
I'm gonna push right through
I'm gonna tell him too
Tell him to
Play us
Play us a slow song

Yes, DJ, play us a slow song - just not this one. Maybe some Boyz II Men, "End of the Road"? But I digress. If songs about Chinatown and lung cancer were all that Night And Day had going for it, then sure, it would be all style and no substance. But, as Erlewine mentioned, there are a few other songs on the album that are "among Jackson's very best." You'll notice I put an ellipse there, so that you wouldn't see which songs he was talking about. That's because, just as Joe surprised his '80s Yuppie public, I wanted to give an equal surprise to my '00s "post-pseudo-slacker-Generation iPod" readers. (Note to self: need a better name for my generation?)

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