Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Love At First Light" / Joe Jackson

The first time I ever heard this Joe Jackson song was live in concert last summer (it's from his 2003 album Volume 4, which I went out and bought the very next day). Sitting there in the dark listening to it, I felt absolutely mesmerized. From that first snide inverted cliche -- "It's the crack of noon" -- I knew I was in Joe Jackson Land, which is a pretty damn treacherous landscape -- the shifting sands of bruised feelings and sexual ambivalence and warped romantic reflexes. Throughout this halting waltz, Joe's trademark crashing piano chords uneasily morph and modulate, and his yearning tenor vacillates between earnest passion and biting sarcasm. It completely wrung my heart -- this is the most honest morning-after song I've ever heard.

The narrator is waking up in bed with a stranger (a woman or a man? even that is unspecified) -- "I can't even remember your name / I know that it's written on a matchbook somewhere / So maybe I'll find it -- and maybe I'll care. " (I love the way Joe Jackson sets up the first half of a line and then whacks it in the knees in the second half.) Okay, now I've got it; this is a one-night stand, right? But then the key shifts and Joe spins the situation differently: "So when you awake, I admit I'm relieved / As you flash me a smile like a diamond / And just for a moment I almost believe / In love at first light." (Another killer play on words.) Sure, he qualifies it with those words "just" and "almost," but the hunger for love is there, and it can't -- won't -- be quelled.

He sketches the brief encounter with cinematic details -- the hungover breakfast of coffee and aspirin and raw eggs, the faint morning chill that makes his lover tenderly drape a robe round his shoulders, the casual curiosity as the lover discovers a favorite book on his shelf. But a flashback to last night's passion sets off a frisson of desire: his voice curls lasciviously around the lyrics -- "But oh, was it ever so good being bad /Like a couple of vampires, deliciously mad / Saying 'This is the best blood that we've ever had' / So we drank it all night." There's sexual appetite there, oh yes. But there's also a playful companionship -- and this morning, that's significant enough to make the forgotten name a minor detail.

This is the moment when it could go either way. No matter how many strangers you've slept with in your no-longer-young life, this transition is tricky. You can't be vampires in the daylight, but if "we do something human, like walk in the park / The spark could ignite..." (Love that internal 'park/spark' rhyme.) Maybe, he worries, he's being moonstruck or naive, but the yin and the yang of the universe have to be sorted out: "I know there's a god / And a devil / So maybe I'm crazy enough to believe / In love at first light."

And sitting there in the dark, I let out a sigh of relief. I can tell he's already talked himself into it. Maybe it's not your traditional happy ending -- but in Joe Jackson Land, this is as happy as an ending gets.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Holly, I loved this song since the first time I heard it, and my feelings haven't changed. I like the fragile and tentative quality of the feelings being expressed. In so many ways, this is a nakedly honest song. You've captured its wavering little heart.

Joe Jackson writes some of the finest and most complex lyrics in pop music. It's nice to see him get his due.