Rockwriters, in their vainglorious quest to bring order to the universe, love to pigeonhole. Take Joe Jackson, for instance. Was there a single review of his first album that didn’t mention Elvis Costello? Even today, with a legendary and eclectic body of work to his credit, ole’ J.J. still finds himself lumped in there with Costello and Graham Parker, as if all three were not unique artists but rather separate arms of the same machine. Isn’t having your best-known song covered by Sugar Ray enough punishment for one lifetime?
True enough: Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson were both English, nerdy-looking, lyrically bitter, and exceedingly gifted at the craft of the three-minute pop song. But to backhandedly credit Jackson as a worthy imitator of Costello isn’t just unfair – it’s plain wrong! Personally, I don’t think Jackson ripped off Costello in the slightest. Look Sharp!, if you really listen to it, owes as much to Jackson’s pub rock roots as it does to the new wave fancies of the late 1970s. The playing and production give the record a cleaner, harder-hitting sound than the typical new wave or skinny tie power pop title of the day. And although Jackson’s memoir made it clear he was no huge fan of punk music, the supercharged “pub rock on speed” feel of Look Sharp! is kinda, sorta…punky!
We can generously say that the young Joe Jackson was not endowed with movie star good looks. While every other band or artist of the new wave pop style was posing for his/her/their own album cover photos, Look Sharp!’s cover art is a picture of a pair of shoes. But while Jackson’s average Joe (no pun intended, I swear!) image may have been a detriment publicity-wise, it was a huge asset for his artistry. Much or most of Look Sharp! is about the woes of not getting the girl. And rarely on record has said theme rung more true. We could never really believe that Mick Jagger couldn’t get no satisfaction. But Joe Jackson getting rejected by girls? Joe Jackson envious of those happy, loving couples? We could totally buy that! He was one of us! These songs, they aren’t just bitter – they positively bristle. The claws come out and dig they do into cold-hearted ex-girlfriends (“One More Time”), the douche bag who does get the girl (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?”), the blissfully married (“Happy Loving Couples”), hot chicks and the evil they do (“Pretty Girls”), and even love itself (“Fools In Love”). With lyrics ranging from pained (“Tell me one more time/That love was only my illusion”) to cynical (“Fools in love/Well are there any other kind of lovers?”) to just plain caustic (“Don’t talk to me about women’s liberation/They already got their right/Just where it hurts”), Jackson sure doesn’t hold back. He rightfully earns his “angry young man” rep, occasionally opining on social issues (“Sunday Papers”) but mostly venting a lifetime’s worth of romantic frustrations. When he sings “If looks could kill/There’s a man who’s marked down as dead!”, it’s so utterly convincing that it sends chills down the spine. Is it any wonder Mark McGrath couldn’t pull off that line? He’s exactly the type of guy Jackson was singing about!
But make no mistake about it: Look Sharp! is by no means a downer. Working with one of the best pub/new wave backing bands of its time (Graham Maby has got to be one of the two or three or four best rock bassists ever!), Jackson channels his pent-up frustrations into an upbeat, high energy joyride of an album. Not quite power pop, not quite punk, not quite mod, not quite pub rock, but perhaps a little bit of each, Look Sharp! is pure pop adrenaline from the first jagged guitar strains of “One More Time” to the final tick of “Got the Time”. Of course it will appeal to fans of classic period pieces like This Year’s Model and Squeezing Out Sparks, but at the same time it’s the unique work of a distinctive artist - a man with a point-of-view, singing voice, and way of writing a song that are entirely his. He would go on to a lengthy and musically diverse career, including forays into jazz and classical music and an extraordinary return to pop form on 2003’s Volume 4. But never has he been able to top his debut. That’s not a knock on the man’s achievements. It’s just that Look Sharp! really is that good.