Blaze Of Glory

Joe Jackson

A&M, 1989

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


As a decade, the 1980s are full of what ifs—what if Ronald Reagan had stuck to acting? What if Led Zeppelin had rehearsed before reuniting for Live Aid? And what if trend-chasing producers hadn’t conspired to make so many albums issued in the ’80s sound like they were recorded using instruments made of aluminum foil?

That distinctly crinkly, treble-all-the-way-up sound was the first thing I noticed about Joe Jackson’s 1989 album Blaze Of Glory, which I picked up on the recommendation of a social media acquaintance with an affinity for visionary, boundary-breaking musicians. I enjoyed Joe’s late ’70s New Wave stuff a lot, all that spiky energy and angular guitar riffs. Then he dipped a toe in reggae (1980’s Beat Crazy) before diving headlong into big-band and swing music (1981’s Jumpin’ Jive), moves that took guts and vision, both of which Joe has always displayed in abundance. When he next went smooth and sophisticated for Night And Day it worked shockingly well; jazz-club Joe is one cool cat.

In time I moved on, though, with the result that prior to picking up this album the only track I’d ever heard from it was the luminous single “Nineteen Forever,” courtesy of its appearance on 1996’s Greatest Hits. Let’s weigh the pros and cons of this typically adventurous outing from the ever-mercurial Mr. Jackson.

The main pro is just that: it’s adventurous; it takes chances. For one thing, singer-songwriter-bandleader Jackson doesn’t even sing lead on all of these tunes; he shares lead vocals with various bandmates on four tracks (“Tomorrow’s World,” “Me And You (Against The World),” “Rant And Rave” and “Discipline”) and hands the mic fully over to frequent harmony vocalist Drew Barfield for “Sentimental Thing.” It’s both a generous move and one that fosters variety in terms of vocal sound on the album. “Me And You” is where it feels like it works the best, a bold and punchy number that manages to overcome the production with pure musical flair.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Another plus is that his lyrics are typically eclectic and sharp-eyed, from the thrumming sci-fi narrative “Tomorrow’s World,” to the acerbic sociological commentary “Down To London,” to the title track, a merciless takedown of the fame machine. As if to further prove that he has abolished all rules and boundaries, he includes a punchy instrumental, the limber, cheeky, Greek-inflected “Acropolis Now.” The heart of the album lies in the pairing of the snappy, horn-and-piano driven, clearly autobiographical “Rant And Rave” with the tart, hook-filled, generally gorgeous “Nineteen Forever.”

On the con side, the album’s main flaw is the already-mentioned ’80s production, with all its splooshy cymbals and egregious synth tones, but it’s not the only one. Good for Joe for being a gracious bandleader and sharing the mic, but the fact is no one bought this album to hear his backup singers. They’re all good, but none of them is Joe, and for all his idiosyncrasies—check that, because of all his idiosyncrasies—as a vocalist, Jackson is instantly charismatic. You want to hear how he’s going to tackle each line of these songs, what spin he’s going to put on them, and when someone else takes over, that same level of interest and engagement just isn’t there. When you combine both of the above flaws on a song like the ironically undisciplined “Discipline,” the results can be something of a train wreck.

Thankfully, “Discipline” and the similarly overcooked “Evil Empire” are at least partially redeemed by closer “The Human Touch,” which features the return of sensitive, yearning Joe while incorporating a bass motif from opening cut “Tomorrow” late in the song to accentuate the feeling of completing a musical circle. It’s a compelling cut even if the background vocalists oddly sound like they were across the room from their mics while singing their parts.

The best and worst thing about Joe Jackson is that he profoundly doesn’t care what anyone else thinks; Joe is gonna be Joe. That means he sometimes makes the unusual choice just because he can, rather than because it’s a good one. But it’s all part of Jackson’s art; dating all the way back to his punky New Wave origins, his entire musical persona has been fueled by defiance. The end result here is an album with notable highs and lows. While “Nineteen Forever” remains a gorgeous single, on the whole Blaze Of Glory is a hit-and-miss affair—worth picking up, but not one of his best, for this listener at least.

Rating: B-

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