Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Solo (So Low)" / Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson's breaking my heart. Again.

I popped his new CD Rain into my car stereo for the first time yesterday, and it shook me to the roots. I wasn't prepared for such naked emotion (though I suppose I should have been, after his previous Volume 4). But here it came, song after song, about foundering affairs with thorny lovers; and it's not just the heartbreak, it's the midlife heartbreak that's so acutely described that it sucked me right in.

Well, I won't go into the whole sequence right now, although Rain is that rare outmoded thing, a record album where song follows song with deliberate purpose. But by the time he gets to track 7, we're deeply commiserating with our dear friend Joe, so unlucky in love. And then he goes into this majestic piece and lets it all hang out.

As the title suggests (did nobody ever think of that play on "solo" before?), this one's just Joe and his grand piano. Is there anybody else working today who can do such things on the keyboard as Joe Jackson? On this song, it's like Chopin mashed up with Keith Jarrett, with a little Erik Satie thrown in for good measure. Even those driving repeated chords, crescendoing and decrescendoing, are so suffused with hurt and longing, they simply kill me.

This a song about hitting rock-bottom, and it feels so real, like we're watching Joe sitting alone in his flat in Berlin, bashing miserably around on his piano. The details are so evocative -- "It's just what it seems / An empty thing / Waiting on somebody who never calls / Listening / In the night to something scratching round behind the walls" (all those vague "somebodies" and "somethings", the terror you can't name). In the next verse he sketches more details: "The cupboards are bare / So now to dine / On three stale crackers and a fifth of gin." It's literal and it's metaphorical -- he's so overwhelmed by self-pity and loneliness he can't tell the difference any more.

The third verse is the killer: "Scared to find / Someone in the mirror who you can't recall / Pale and lined / Talking to himself and saying 'Fuck 'em all.'" The scathing way Joe spits out that last phrase is so hurt and human, it scares me. You've really got to hear this with the melody, though; those alternating short, aimless lines with the long rushed-together ones is marvelous. The way some lines hang wistfully on a high note, others slide hopelessly down the scale -- well, this is the work of a songwriter who really knows what he's doing.

Between the lines, you guess that they've already broken up ("after storms" he says in one bridge, and "peace at last" in the final one, though both phrases dangle awkwardly on dissonant chords). That's why the next-to-last bit is such a heartbreaker: "Though one must admit / Chances are few / To try to be / Someone new." It's that exhausting effort, to start over again again (and AGAIN), that makes this a midlife song. When you're young, you think the end of one love is the end of everything. When you're in your 40s (or 50s), you know it isn't--but that's no consolation when you know you'll just have to go back out there again, bruised and scarred, with less hope than ever that it'll work this time.

See what I mean about heartbreaking?

Now here's the beauty part: tracks 8 and 10 turn it all around. But don't let me spoil it for you; go get this album and find out for yourself.

Solo (So Low) sample


Uncle E said...

Thanks for the excellent post, Holly. I've yet to pick it up, but shall do so immediately, pending me getting over this damn head cold that's got me waylayed.
Is it as good, or better, than Vol 4? I am quite partial to Night And Day II, so I am anxious to hear what you have to say about the rest of the album.

Julie said...

This has already become one of my favorite Joe Jackson albums. The song you mention is a gem among other gems. Simply stunning.