There are two artists in my archives who regularly reduce me to tears: Joe Jackson and Ben Folds. I don't know why that is, although the fact that both are stellar pianists may have something to do with it. I've had Ben mightily on my mind recently, having just received his new retrospective box set, The Best Imitation of Myself (Jesus, this guy is good.) But for some reason it was this already-covered Joe Jackson song that dominated my brain today. Who knows why -- like the Wizard of Oz, I don't know how it works.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Volume 4 is such a superb album. I’m not just talking musically, though it's an exquisite fusion of rock and jazz and Latin music and cabaret and everything else. But what really takes my breath away is how Joe Jackson's songwriting has matured – those melancholy melodies, the poetic imagery of the lyrics, the psychological depth of the storytelling. Music for grown-ups, again -- and you know how I love that.
I realize I’ve already worked over “Awkward Age” and “Love At First Light”; now add “Blue Flame” to the list of songs from this 2003 album that completely wrench my heart.
He wastes no time, but plunges right in, mid-conversation: “I’ve got some walls around me too / But they’re not much, compared to your house / Fifty feet high, with barbed wire / Guards on the top, aiming rifles at your lovers one by one / And friends too.” Don’t you just know people like that? And the way that melody meanders in and out of minor keys, piano chords hanging unresolved, the drumbeat clicking along – it’s so wistful, so sorrowful, you have to take it seriously. Maybe this is the secret of Joe Jackson's emotional power: those risk-taking melodies, leaping all over the keyboard. Who can resist?
“I’ve come with hands above my head,” he declares, carrying on the metaphor, but he’s honest about his own hang-ups: “But I’m damned if I’ll try to break your door down / If you ever come out, just call me / I’ll still be armed with the memory of one evening when you smiled / At something.” It’s so little to go on, but at a certain point in our lives we realize that may be all there is. Taking a risk gets so damn hard – but NOT taking the risk, that’s death.
Yes, this hoped-for lover is a hard case – “You tell me women get you down / And as for men, well they’re all bastards / I wonder what world you call home,” he mutters, shaking his head. Later, he can’t resist an edgy snipe: “Yes, it was nice to see you too / Although I’m never sure you mean it.” Yes, he can see his would-be lover’s faults, perfectly clearly. Leading into the second chorus, he’s talking as much to himself as to his lover when he remarks, “Bitterness is a black hole.” But somebody has to bend.
So why is this lover worth pursuing? In the chorus, he shifts gears to confess that there is another side: “There’s a blue flame inside of you, so beautiful and rare / Love’s not something we decide to do / You’d be so hard to love / If love was not just . . . there.” There's the heartbreaking nub of it. Of course; they're already entangled, more than either of them can afford to admit. Who ever said love was easy?
And we have NO idea how this affair will turn out. If a happy ending is what you’re hanging around for, prepare to be disappointed. The romantic and the realist in Joe Jackson are always locked in their hopeless dance; neither one will ever win. That’s the world according to Joe Jackson . . . and it pierces my heart, every time.