Album of the Week, June 23: Look Sharp! by Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson - Look SharpDavid Ian Jackson was born in 1954 in Burton upon Trent, England. He grew up a sickly, asthmatic child in a poor working-class family. His education included a broad range of music, and he studied violin, oboe, and tympani before settling on the piano. Interested in classical music, he determined to be a composer, but played jazz piano to raise money. He participated in a number of bands, most notably the short-lived Arms & Legs, and picked up the nickname “Joe”  before deciding to record a solo album. Intrigued by the burgeoning new wave and punk scenes, he set aside his classical and jazz experience and honed his band into a crack edgy pop unit. At the age of 25, he joined the ranks of the angry young men, releasing his first solo disc — the one with the shoes!

Title Look Sharp!
Act Joe Jackson
Label A & M Release Date  1/5/1979
Producer David Kershenbaum
U.S. Chart  #20 U.K. Chart  #40
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. One More Time
  2. Sunday Papers
  3. Is She Really Going Out With Him? [#21]
  4. Happy Loving Couples
  5. Throw It Away
  6. Baby Stick Around
  7. Look Sharp!
  8. Fools In Love
  9. (Do the) Instant Mash
  10. Pretty Girls
  11. Got the Time

Although he has something in common with Graham Parker and Elvis Costello — two post-punk pub rockers who released powerful debut albums not long before Look Sharp! — Jackson opened with clearer pop underpinnings. Sardonic and sometimes angry, he was also clearly a romantic at heart, yearning for love (and admitting his own occasionally shallow desires in its pursuit). These threads come together brilliantly in the opening number, One More Time, a perfect statement of purpose for the album. A burst of impatience with a flawed romantic partner, it surges with energy as Jackson spits out his lyrics. It sets the stage perfectly.

Sunday Papers is an observation about human nature, noting the absurd issues that people will obsess over and the amount of media attention that minor scandals and celebrity misbehavior garner. Nicely crafted, it has some real lyrical depth to go with the musical punch. Up next is the big single, and perhaps Jackson’s finest song. Is She Really Going Out With Him? is a wonderful song of frustrated romance. Sneaky where other songs on the disc are forceful, it is musically complex, lyrically rich, and delivered with just the right mix of humor, frustration, and yearning.

The narrator of Happy Loving Couples could easily be the same voice. Celebrating love while bemoaning its absence in his life, Jackson weaves one of the album’s most romantic songs, with a twist. “Those happy couples ain’t no friends of mine” indeed. The energy amps up even further with Throw It Away, a quick observation about disposable culture. Romance returns in the brilliant Baby Stick Around. Jackson celebrates his relationship — while noting its flaws — and pleads with his partner to stick it out. In two-and-a-half minutes he perfectly captures a romance that could go either way, stuttering his demands as the band surges behind him.

The title track is another sneaky number, using a less direct rhythm section and quieter vocal delivery — until he punches the title line. It’s a nice mix of the social consciousness and relationship stories that fill the album, both celebrating and questioning the often shallow posturing that goes with trying for any kind of success. Fools In Love is one of the album’s longest tracks, a meditation on the perils of love — “are there any creatures more pathetic?” Jackson delivers a spot-on vocal, quietly observing everything that can go wrong, bemoaning the foolishness of romance, and then pledging his love. It’s well constructed and one of his best lyrics.

(Do the) Instant Mash is a nearly throwaway dance number. Jackson and the band have too much fun with it to disregard the song, however, and it gets the energy going again for the closing tracks. Pretty Girls, with a punk-meets-doo-wop chorus and some 50s lyric-checking, is a great song about romantic paralysis and yearning. Somehow Jackson manages to be adolescent and adult all in one lyric, a neat trick. The album wraps up with another reflection on everyday life, Got the Time. Its energy, as with much of the album, reflects just how fast life can go by. Clearly, all that nearly disastrous romance is an important part of making the most of the time you’ve got.

RELEASE NOTE: In 2001, A&M released a remastered Look Sharp! The sound is excellent and the disc (and digital version) include two bonus tracks. You Got the Fever is a fun track along the lines of Instant Mash; Don’t Ask Me is a great track that should have been part of the original disc, a nice I-live-in-this-world-but-can’t-explain-it rocker. Unlike many reissues, this one is worth the investment.

FURTHER LISTENING: Joe Jackson has an amazingly varied — and often frustrating — catalog. He embraces the label “eclectic” and no two discs in a row sound much like each other. His lyrics are routinely solid and he surrounds himself with great musicians — usually providing the keyboard work himself. His biggest seller, Night and Day, is the other standout, blending romance and modern life in a jazzier framework.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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