Monday, January 05, 2009

"Rush Across the Road" /
Joe Jackson

I'm not big on end-of-year "best of" lists. Imagine lumping together two such different albums as Vampire Weekend's debut album and Ray Davies' Working Man's Cafe, just because they were released in the same year -- what's the point?

Still, if I did do a Best Records of 2008 list, I know one album that would be on it: Joe Jackson's Rain. The first time I played it, I was shattered by its searing emotions, and it only goes deeper every time I've listened since. The song cycle traces the downward spiral of a flawed love affair; and then suddenly, on track eight, comes this totally joyous song about finding new love, just when you least expect it.

Joe Jackson's never fit easily into the rock mold; he's always veering off into jazz and classical and Latin music, even old-fashioned lush movie scores (gotta love the reference to Casablanca in this song's first line: "Of all the streets in the world / You walk down this one.") It's wonderfully cinematic, as he pans the urban wideshot then zooms in for a close-up: "And I see three hundred girls / But just want to kiss one." But this is no love at first sight -- it's an old love rediscovered, like a gift from God ("I never thought you'd floor me again"), an appropriate fit for the complex midlife emotions Jackson's wrestling with.

Ever noticed what great melodies Joe Jackson writes? Partly I think it's because he's a pianist; he doesn't get hung up on chord progressions, he just flows all over the keyboard, and with his wide vocal range he can soar and dive at will. Still, even for Joe Jackson this is an achingly lovely tune. The chorus flings notes around with joyous abandon, pouncing eagerly on love as he sings, "Rush across the road /Leave my heavy load behind." He flies upward ecstatically on "It just takes a second / To know your mind," then pushes it even farther, shifting keys upward, for "And do what you've got to do." You can almost hear him bestilling his heart as he concludes, "I'll rush across the road / To catch up with you," then adds, almost in dazed wonder, "Catch up with you."

In verse two, he mulls over why this relationship never took off in the past ("Some things come to an end / Before they're done with") and you suspect he's been fretting over this lost love for years. He can only dimly recall the fights they used to have -- "And I've had enough of tears anyway" (yeah, we've seen that in tracks one through seven). But ripeness is all, as Shakespeare says; maybe it wasn't until this moment that he was ready for this love to take off.

It almost goes into movie slow-mo in verse three -- "Funny how the blink of an eye / Can last forever" -- I find myself rooting for him to get the timing right at last. He trembles suspensefully on the brink for another few lines: "And how we think ourselves dry / When it's now or never / If I wait for one more sigh / You could turn and see me / Then I'll never know what I would have done . . . " Oh, no, Joe, don't blow it this time -- you need this love so badly now.

And of course, you know what he does; he leaps into that chasm of love again, rushing across the road to catch up with her. Scarred and battered as he is, he's still going for it. This is, after all, the same guy who thirty years ago sang "Fools in love / Are there any other kinds of lovers?" He's never been able to put the brakes on his heart -- why should he start now?

The arrangement feels like a whole orchestra; it's amazing to realize it's just Joe on piano and Dave Houghton's drums, then a little touch of Graham Maby's bass in the middle eight. Joe Jackson always gets more notes out of the piano than you'd think humanly possible; this song couldn't feel more exuberant. It just bursts out of the CD, blowing inside-out all the heart-wringing of the earlier tracks. Gorgeous as this song is on its own, it's even more gorgeous as part of the CD's dramatic flow. Shocking, really -- an album that was made to be listened to as a whole, in this age of single-track downloads. But then, when did Joe Jackson ever really fit into modern times?

Rush Across the Road sample

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