Joe Jackson crafts carnivalesque fun with ‘Fool’

Some found Joe Jackson through the forlorn street corner pop of 1979’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Others remember the spiky snarl and consumer-culture criticism of “I’m the Man.” Millions were introduced to Jackson’s work through the musical reinvention of 1982’s urbane Top 10 hit “Steppin’ Out.”

Jackson has challenged himself and his audience with a myriad of musical excursions during a lengthy career, including big band arrangements on “Blaze of Glory,” Latin and jazz styles on “Body & Soul,” classically-oriented works such as “Will Power” and “Symphony No. 1,” bracing post-punk with “Volume Four,” and more.

JOE JACKSON
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21-22
Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport
Tickets: $43.50-$89.50 (18+over)
Info: thaliahallchicago.com

Now Jackson returns with his 19th album “Fool.” He’ll visit Chicago next week for two nights at Thalia Hall. In addition to “Fool,” the tour highlights an album from each decade of Jackson’s recorded career and celebrates the 40th birthdays of albums “Look Sharp!” and “I’m the Man.”

“Fool” stands tall among Jackson’s best work, finding the songwriter as acerbic, romantic, introspective and sonically diverse as ever. The title character is cast as a superhero with the power to make people laugh. “For a long time I was thinking, ‘Why is there so little humor in the music world?’,” says Jackson. “I’m interested in writing songs that reflect the age I’m at, and things that are really important as you get older. I think humor is one of them.”

Savvy listeners will spot Jackson’s fondness for classic literature within the song. Feste, the fool from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, makes a guest appearance. Like the best comedians, Feste’s superpowers include the ability to tell dangerous truths. “Twelfth Night is a play that I know very well,” says Jackson. “But there’s also King Lear, which is maybe even a better example of the fool who tells the truth. He’s the only one who will tell the king that the king is losing his mind, and he gets away with it.”

The title song as a freewheeling fusion including feisty rock, Latin-based styles, Indian and Asian motifs, and more. “It’s everything but the kitchen sink,” says Jackson. “The spirit of the fool is anarchy. Let’s have a party, no matter what. I started to see the song as a five-minute musical carnival, with various cultures represented by different floats going by and people in different gaudy costumes. I kept thinking, “Well, I could throw a bit of this in here as well.” And why not? That’s what the fool would do. The fool would be a character that every time you think you’ve got him figured out, he turns the tables on you. He makes a rude gesture, or he drops his pants or something.”

“Fabulously Absolute” echoes the brash New Wave sound of Jackson’s earliest records, while making wry commentary on current ideological schisms. “There was a very interesting article in the New York Times recently,” says Jackson. “Someone did a big survey of ordinary working people all over the country, and they found that a large majority of them really didn’t relate very much to either extreme of the political and cultural divide – and were sick and tired of it, actually. I’m down with those people.”

“It’s everything but the kitchen sink,” says Joe Jackson of the title song from his new album, "Fool." | John Huba Photo

“It’s everything but the kitchen sink,” says Joe Jackson of the title song from his new album, “Fool.” | John Huba Photo

Graham Maby has been Jackson’s musical foil since the days of “Look Sharp!” The new album features Maby’s bass prominently, with captivating solos on the title cut and the wistful “32 Kisses.” “I think live he’s always been much more than just the guy who plonks around at the back of the stage and no one notices,” says Jackson. “In some ways, the bass was more the lead instrument than the guitar on the first three albums. He’s just a f–ing great bass player.”

Jackson has other reasons to valuable Maby’s partnership. “I think we met when I was 18 and he was 20,” he says. “It’s very nice having an old friend around after all this time.”
Although Fool is the impetus for Jackson’s tour, the milestone anniversary of his first two records is also a draw. For some artists, fan connection to “the old stuff” can be bittersweet. Jackson is pragmatic.

“I’m perfectly happy with it at this point,” he says. “I’ve got a pretty big repertoire, so I don’t necessarily have to do the stuff I don’t like. There’s some songs from the early records that make me cringe, but there’s also plenty that I still like. I’m not going to say we’re able to please everyone, because you can never do that. But yeah, we’re enjoying playing new stuff and old stuff.”

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer. 

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