There's an old saying: Pioneers take the arrows, settlers get the land.
"Yeah, I've taken a few arrows," says Joe Jackson, speaking by phone from New York, the city he has called home for more than 15 years and which serves as the central framework for his new album, Night and Day II.
Jackson hasn't been much of a commercial force since his early days of hits like "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Steppin' Out," the latter song being from the original Night and Day, to which the new release is a sort of sequel. But he has been a pioneer in certain respects, leading the way for rockers trying to expand their horizons beyond the typical four-minute pop song. His albums have explored jump blues and big-band swing, Latin and dance rhythms, jazz and neo-classical styles. In nearly every case, he's been a decade out in front of popular trends in the music industry.
"Or 40 years too late," he quips ruefully.
Jackson arrived on these shores in 1979 with his somewhat bilious new-wave album Look Sharp! and was immediately cast into the "angry young man" category alongside artists like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Time would reveal each of them to be very much an individualist, but Jackson remains philosophical about being lumped into this or that particular group.
"Everyone gets lumped in with something," he says. "I always thought this "angry young man' tag was funny, because I imagined that sort of person as someone who is permanently furious, like, he does everything in a rage -- brushes his teeth furiously. On Night and Day II, there is a caricature of that kind of guy in "Just Because.' He's mad at the world, and I think he's actually quite funny but scary at the same time, 'cause you don't know what the hell he's gonna do."
When Jackson set about writing songs for his new album, he had no intention of doing a sequel to 1982's Night and Day, or to any of his albums, for that matter. "It started out as just a kind of vague idea that I wanted to do something about New York," he says. "The more I got into it, the more I thought, you know, this really is so much connected with Night and Day that the obvious thing to do is call it Night and Day II. Sometimes it's almost pretentious to not do the obvious -- like you're trying too hard not to do it. Sometimes the obvious thing to do is, in fact, the obvious thing to do [he laughs]."
Choosing New York as a subject was a natural, not just because the subject was spread out right in front of him but also because the city inspires such strong feelings in people. "It's a very seductive place. It tends to suck you in and not let you go," Jackson says. "Over the years, I've tried to leave, but I've ended up always coming back. Now, at this point, I've sort of surrendered to it. Actually, the last song on the album, "Stay,' is somewhat about that. You know, at some point, you've gotta say, "This is where I live. I'm gonna stay here.' You have to make some commitment to something. Otherwise you're just permanently adrift. But I find myself nowadays feeling very much about New York as I did when I first came here, which is that it has tremendous romance and glamour and at the same time it has a dark side, which can be quite scary. And yet that's quite seductive, too."
Indeed, both points of view are amply represented on the album. You can't miss the two-sided nature of a title like "Hell of a Town," which finds people living the high life, even as they scream at each other to "Get out of my goddamn way."
"A lot of people say they have a love-hate relationship with the city, and they say it as though love and hate are opposites, and of course they're not," Jackson says. "The opposite of love, I think, is not hate -- it's indifference. I think you can't be indifferent to New York."
On Night and Day II, Jackson tries to capture the feel of the city in his lyrics, naturally, but also with his music, which moves through a number of different styles, even as it throbs to the same continuous beat -- 127 beats per minute -- which he intuited as the pulse rate of New York.
"This is an idea I had a while ago, and I never knew when I was going to be able to use it," Jackson says. "But after I'd written three or four songs, I started to see that this was the project that I could do it with. I see [the album] like it's a taxi drive around the city. There's a continuous pulse, but as you go through different neighborhoods, you hear different rhythms over it -- Latin rhythms, or a disco beat like on the song "Glamour and Pain.' Two of the songs are at half-tempo -- "Why' and "Love Got Lost' -- but then it goes back again."
Working with such unusual ideas is actually typical of Jackson's music since he started working on ambitious projects like 1997's Heaven and Hell and 1998's Symphony No. 1. Even as most pop-music attention spans are growing ever shorter, Jackson continues to believe in writing songs rich in character development that fit into larger, album-length concepts.
"It's something that just seems to have crept up on me in the last five years," he says. "I'm writing more and more about characters and also having other voices to bring them to life. I don't really know how that's happened. I just think it's a bit boring if the spotlight is always on me. So I like to take the spotlight off myself not only in the writing but in the performance as well."
Jackson sings the lion's share of songs on the album, but he's also joined by Marianne Faithfull, who sings the wan "Love Got Lost," as well as Iranian diva Sussan Deyhim, who soars on the stunning "Why," and Dale DeVere, who emotes to the clubby "Glamour and Pain."
"He's a drag queen I met in a couple of New York clubs," Jackson says of DeVere. "He can sing a bit, unlike a lot of drag queens [he laughs]."
In addition to Night & Day II, Jackson's 1999 book A Cure for Gravity has just been published in paperback. "It's not really an autobiography," he says. "What I call it is a book about music that's thinly disguised as a memoir." Strangely, the book doesn't deal so much with what Jackson has been through in his many years in the spotlight as it does with what brought him to that point. "It goes up to my 24th birthday, when I was in the studio making my first album," he says, "and it does have a lot of reflection on what happened since then. It's just that I concentrated on the stuff that no one knows about. People know what I've done after that point, and it's less interesting than the stuff that came before."
What's also interesting is Jackson's continuing relationship with the Sony Classical label, which has released all of his albums since Heaven and Hell. Jackson says signing with the label wasn't a matter of "going classical" -- indeed, he denies that his symphony is really even a classical work, instead describing it as a "reinterpretation of a classical form." Jackson says his relationship with the label started at about the same time his deal with Virgin Records began to sour. "Heaven and Hell was sort of half-finished at that time, and we started shopping it around it a bit just to see what kind of reactions we got, and we got a wildly enthusiastic reaction from Sony Classical. Even though being on a classical label is pretty weird for me, basically I don't care what kind of label it is, as long as they're enthusiastic about working with me.
"So it's kind of an experimental partnership: on my side, an artist who doesn't really fit categories very easily, and on their side, a classical label that is trying to broaden what they do beyond the classical repertoire. And it seems to be working so far."
His greatest challenge these days, Jackson says, is battling what he calls the "supermarket syndrome" in which all music must operate under one sort of label or another in order to be heard.
"You go into the supermarket and there's so many products, it's overwhelming. So everyone wants every product to be very clearly labeled so that they know exactly what it is," Jackson says. "And what I do is kind of, like, you pick up a box on the shelf, and, instead of just telling you just what it is, it says, "Here's something we're not quite sure how to describe. It's kind of like this, and it's kind of like that, but you really need to try it, and maybe you'll like it.' If you see that in a supermarket, you'll get pissed off. That's kind of what I'm up against. But I think all I can do is make sure I put good stuff in that box, and whoever discovers it, at least they'll be getting something real."