Joe Jackson, ‘Fast Forward’: Album Review
On Fast Forward, Joe Jackson's first collection of new songs since 2008’s Rain, the singer-songwriter hasn't so much revisited a nearly 30-year-old concept as stood it on its head. It's best to think of the album as the exact opposite of 1986's Big World.
For that record, Jackson's material reflected his experiences traveling around the world, and he performed it with his band in front of a New York audience. Here, he recorded 16 songs in four cities -- New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and New Orleans -- with a different group of musicians at each stop. It's kind of like what Foo Fighters did with Sonic Highways in 2014.
Even with the changes in musicians and cities, there’s a coherence to Fast Forward, largely because Jackson keeps the arrangements uncluttered, with his keyboards and voice — which sounds much younger than his 61 years — front and center. And, with the exception of the New Orleans tracks, he’s not trying to fit in with a particular city’s musical traditions. These are Joe Jackson songs, and, most importantly, they’re some of the best he’s put out in 20 years.
In New York, Jackson and longtime bassist Graham Maby are joined by a pair of top jazz players who have experience working with adventurous rock musicians, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Brian Blade. Regina Carter also stops by to contribute violin on the title track. The quartet blends perfectly together, with Maby's runs on "If It Wasn't for You" and Frisell's squalling solo on a blistering version of Television's “See No Evil" as highlights. Blade brings the perfect touch on all four songs.
The Amsterdam songs are the most experimental, with members from Dutch group Zuco 103 and the Concertgebouw orchestra providing the accompaniment. “A Little Smile” is a solid pop song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1991’s Laughter and Lust, and “So You Say” has a wonderful Latin jazz groove. But the decision to begin “Far Away” by giving a vocal spotlight to 14-year-old Broadway actor Mitchell Sink doesn’t pay off.
Then it’s on to Berlin, where the subject matter and singable chorus of “Junkie Diva” could’ve come from Steely Dan’s Katy Lied. But the next two cuts plod along, and the cover of “Good Bye Jonny,” a German cabaret song from the ‘30s, doesn’t fit with the rest of the album.
Jackson closes in New Orleans, always a good place to look for musical inspiration. Three members of the excellent funk band Galactic back him, as does a horn section. They give a solid groove to “Keep on Dreaming” and the slyly Beethoven-quoting “Ode to Joy,” which ends the record on an upbeat note instead of Jackson's usual ambivalence.
Lyrically, Jackson isn’t breaking new ground here. He’s still mostly trying to figure out the complexities of the modern world and yearning to connect. Yet by continuously putting them in new musical settings, they don’t sound like retreads. A few more uptempo numbers would have helped, but that’s been the case with much of his work over the past 25 years. Regardless, Fast Forward is an experiment that works well and shows Jackson’s typical musical restlessness is aging well.
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