Jackson’s sound is undeniably attractive: rhythm guitar, drums, bass, and his own piano; no overdubbing; quick, reggae-infused tempos; a brittle, slightly bitter vocal tone. Elvis Costello (and behind him, Graham Parker) (and behind him, the Nick Lowe of Brinsley Schwarz days) has made Jackson easy to hear. He can balance time-honored corn and modern, self-satirizing humor within a brooding, melodramatic song structure (“Is She Really Going Out with Him?”); despite a toney Royal Academy of Music background he’s not afraid to chase after the clatter of the first British Invasion (“Got the Time”); he can toss off what’s hardly more than a tough riff and make you want to hear it again and again (“One More Time”); he can rock out (“Throw It Away”). He creates a tightly bound world of small-time anguish, manageable self-pity, useful energy, limited irony.
Which is exactly what great rockers do not do. At first, I rated Look Sharp! over Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks because, after a couple of listenings to each, Jackson’s album seemed so much more finished, complete, defined: It came across more easily. Well, it is more finished, etc.—a bright tour de force of stripped-down/post-punk/pure-pop rock—but Jackson hasn’t even begun to think about what it would mean to write, let alone sing, a song as powerful as Parker’s new “Discovering Japan” or “Nobody Hurts You.” As well crafted as it is, his music can’t stand up to radio exposure; its cleverness implodes. “Happy Loving Couples” (they don’t make Jackson happy) gets lots of airplay, but the hook is in the idea of the lyric, and there’s not much to the idea. “Throw It Away” wears down after a minute or so: it rocks out but it doesn’t quite take off. “Look Sharp!” and “(Do the) Instant Mash” sneer at the faddish intensity of pop culture, but, unlike Elvis Costello’s, this isn’t a sneer you can live on—it’s hedged. And when Jackson gets truly serious, as with “Fools Fall in Love,” a moody ballad that builds to the startling revelation that the singer himself is the fool, it’s tune-out time.
I like Joe Jackson’s album, and I’m being too hard on it, mainly because the obvious acceptability of his music and his toned-down New Wave personality bothers me. It’s not that what he’s offering strikes—or is really capable of striking—a nerve, and can thus elicit a response; rather, in terms of AOR radio and What Is Hip, Joe Jackson and Look Sharp! fit. Any cut from the LP can be slipped right in between the Rubinoos’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” or “So Lonely” by the Police or “Better Late Than Never” by Tonio K., and Jackson’s sound will seem—sharp. Its real effect, though, will be to dull the edge of performances like those, each of which, in its expansiveness, craziness, playfulness, or plain sustaining, irreducible momentum, fundamentally demands that anything else fit around it. That’s exactly the problem current radio means to solve, and it’s just slightly depressing to find that Jackson’s sprightly tunes are part of the solution.
The kind of irresistible banality mastered by Joe Jackson, (the current) Robert Johnson, and others like them was once one of the pleasures of rock and roll. But give their music the cachet of cool and today it will be used to force out the stuff that keeps rock and roll kicking. I don’t say it’s their fault.
Village Voice, April 1979 (TBC)