Joe Jackson realized a while back that 2019 would mark 40 years since the release of his debut, Look Sharp. And yet, he says, “I still don’t really believe it.” Perhaps that’s because the acclaimed British singer-songwriter behind hits like “Steppin’ Out” and “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” has been busy readying his crackling, newly released album Fool.
Recorded in Boise, Idaho at the end of his most-recent tour, the record, Jackson‘s 20th, finds him in both ruminative and rocking moods. To commemorate the new release and his milestone, Jackson will embark on the Four Decade Tour in February, drawing on one main album to represent each 10-year period: Look Sharp, Night and Day, Laughter & Lust, Rain, and Fool. He’s looking forward to the trek, but still wondering where the time has gone. “Some days it feels like it’s been a long time,” he says, adding with a laugh, “but it doesn’t seem like 40 bloody years!”
EW chatted with Jackson about the new album and how he’ll be switching up the set list on the road. (Spoiler alert: Die-hard Jackson fans may be surprised to hear how he is ending his shows.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you happen to be in Boise so you chose to record there? Or did you choose Boise as the last stop in order to record there?
JOE JACKSON: It’s just that was the last show of the tour. And it was what we decided to do: wherever we finished that’s where we record — assuming that there was a studio that was decent, and there was. I kind of love it actually. Because at one point it looked like we might have extended the tour a bit and gone to California and possibly record it in L.A. And I mean, that’s what everyone does. It’s kind of boring. I was thrilled to do it in Boise. I enjoyed being there. It’s a nice town.
For that recent tour, you chose secondary markets that you don’t normally hit. Were you concerned at all that people wouldn’t turn up?
I try not to ever have any expectations at all. But I will say that the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of touring. And I’ve been amazed at the strength of support that’s out there. I didn’t really expect to be selling out venues in places like Boise, Idaho. On that same tour we went to several places for the first time. We went to Halifax, Nova Scotia and it was sold out, so, I’m thrilled. Because, like I said, I start from the assumption that nothing will happen at all. No one will show up. I think it’s healthier to have zero expectations.
The first single “Fabulously Absolute” is another in a long line of great list songs. When you write those do they come out fully formed, stream-of-consciousness? Or do you do a lot of editing?
Nothing comes out fully formed. Everything’s a process. It’s just experimenting and trying different things and scrapping them and starting again. I think I’m more particular now than I was in the very early days. I guess if something starts to seem like it’s getting a bit predictable or it’s feeling like something I’ve done before or something someone else has done then I tend to scrap it or look for some way to screw it up.
‘Big Black Cloud” is a good example of that delicious subset of pop where what you are saying is pretty depressing — that, metaphorically, the skies look threatening — but the mood of the music is fairly jaunty.
It is a dark song but it’s also defiant, ’cause I’m saying, “Well I’m not giving in to this. I’m not gonna be scared.” Anyone who has any kind of authority tries to bolster their authority and extend their power by frightening people: “You don’t know the terrible things that will happen if you don’t vote for me, or if you don’t support me. The sky will fall, unless you support me, and I’ll save you ’cause I’m the one who knows what to do.” That’s the message you hear all the time and there’s a real lack of messages that are inspiring out there quite frankly. So, it’s a bit dark but it’s also just recognizing [the darkness] and not just giving in to it.
A couple of songs on Fool evoke the Blaze of Glory/Laughter & Lust phase of your career and “Friend Better” is one of those. The narrator is offering some good advice. Where did you first hear or devise that advice?
This is stuff that I’ve just gradually figured out over the years. You know, I’m at the point where, well, I’ve been around the block a few times. And I think I have a grip on the things that are most important in life, as you get older especially, and one that is very important is not to lose sight of friendship.
And on the title track you are cursing up a storm about the various kinds of fool, like the guy who “f—s up a funeral.”
That song’s about another one of the things that I think are really, really important to keep in your life as you get older. And that’s a sense of humor. “Friend Better” is a toast to friendship and “Fool” is a toast to humor basically. It’s all a personification of humor which is this figure of the fool, the jester.
He’s a necessary person even when he’s screwing things up.
He’s absolutely essential. It’s very interesting actually. Recently there’s been a lot of talk about applying political correctness to comedy. And you know, what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable and what comedians should or shouldn’t be able to say or make jokes about. And I think that’s completely wrongheaded. I mean, the whole point of humor is to not have any bloody respect for anyone. Otherwise it doesn’t work.
Now that you’ve given yourself this five-album parameter, how will you be making your setlist? How do you figure out which songs to sacrifice?
It’s the same way I do everything. I can only describe it as following your intuition. One thing that I wanted to do on this tour was to play some songs that haven’t been played live for quite a while. So that’s my other reason for drawing on those particular albums. But we’ll also do some stuff that’s not on those five albums as well.
Anyone that has been in the business as long as you have and has been fortunate enough to have some hits has to play at least a few of those to get out of the building alive. You’re famous for reinventing your hits. Does that help keep them fresh?
They have been reinvented quite a lot. And every now and again I think it’s fun to come back and play exactly like the record just to shock everyone. So we might do that, but I always like to change things around. And two of the albums we are featuring, Night & Day and Rain, have no guitar on them. So in the case of those songs we do have to reinvent them a little bit unless we just send [guitarist] Teddy [Kumpel] off for a while. I mean, we might do that too. [Laughs]
For years now, you’ve ended your shows with “A Slow Song.” Is that a superstitious thing for you?
That’s one of the things that we’re gonna change next tour. [Laughs] I mean it works really well, which is why we keep doing it I guess. But I think there are other things that will work too.
Do you ever look over at [bass player] Graham [Maby, who’s been with Jackson for the entire ride] and think, “Holy s–t, we’ve been doing this for 40 years”?
“Holy s–t, who’s that?” [Laughs] Not really, no. Well, I do think that sometimes. I mean not during a show — I’m immersed in, you know, doing the show. But honestly it’s been a while now since I realized this would be the 40th anniversary and it’s like it still really hasn’t sunk in.