Joe Jackson was a part of a new wave singer-songwriter triumvirate, with Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. From 1978 to 1980, he would mold a trio of albums which would exemplify the best of that genre, along with a couple of hits in “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “It’s Diffferent For Girls”. But the new wave tag, like most tags of musical genres, was beginning to age. By 1982, it was practically antiquated. And Joe Jackson and his band had left it behind a year earlier, going from the drums-bass-guitar-voice conventions right to a jump blues album Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, in the traditions of Louis Prima, Big JoeTurner, and Louis Jordan. Of course he was about 15 years too early for that particular musical revivalism. But, that’s another story. The point is, Jackson was getting restless. He wanted to expand his palette in the traditions of some of the composers he most admired – George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in particular.
It was soon after a divorce that Jackson would re-locate from England to New York City, and the move itself would inspire his next record Night & Day. This was a record far removed from his first three albums in a number of ways. The most obvious was the addition of jazz and latin sounds that were added to the mix. A more subtle difference, but one which is significant, was the absence of a guitar. This is Jackson’s most cohesive artistic statement to date, and one into which he poured his heart and significant musical talent. Overall the album stands as a testament to an artist bucking a system he helped to create in the new wave sound of the late 70s, and succeeding both artistically and commercially.
The musicianship on this album is exemplary. Stalwart Jackson bass player Graham Maby sits in, filling the gaps, while Jackson himself leads the way on piano, organ, and even on alto saxophone. Sue Hadjopoulas adds latin percussion to the mix, which changes the approach of the whole completely. Effectively, the aggression of the guitar is made redundant because of her textures, making this a prime record for showcasing how a percussionist can make a song shine, rather than just be a part of the background. LarryTolfree rounds out the quartet on drums.
The hits are high-profile – the immortal and optimistic “Steppin’ Out” being the biggest, an ode to leaving the worries of life behind for while and becoming child-like again, exploring the wonders of the world at night with a loved one. But that song was the lighter side of what Jackson was exploring here. The main themes are about alienation – being in places, and in times, where one feels out of step, and slightly fearful perhaps of what the future may hold.
New York City is virtually a character here, as illustrated in the album’s opener “Another World”, which has the stranger in a new town looking at the possibilities of what a new life in a new place may have in store. “Chinatown” is about the dangers of the city and being unaccustomed to the instincts required to survive living there. “Target” furthers this theme, with a barrage of percussion and jazz piano which seem to voice the frenetic energy of a city which is both dangerous and equally vital. It is clear that like Jackson’s compositional heroes like Cole Porter (who wrote a song called “Night & Day“, of course) he was greatly inspired by the city as a backdrop. But, the alienation and underlying unease of a new life alone in an unfamiliar location seems to shine through.
Another great theme is the alienation of being in the middle of changing times. Songs like “A Slow Song” and “Real Men” seem to touch on this most, with the changing face of sexual politics and gender roles becoming more and more blurry at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. Although many of these areas changed for the better, Jackson’s materials covers some of the lesser discussed issues that come with changing times – the fear of change, whether for the better or not. The song “Cancer” touches on the innate fear of our times that often stops us from living life to its fullest – and features some of Jackson’s superlative jazz piano chops. “Breaking Us In Two” is another hit, dealing with the real life complexities of love in a modern age – that the boy-meets-girl happily ever after paradigm of the past had passed into something more involved, more challenging, and less easy to grab a hold of.
Night & Day is one of my albums, one of those ones which feels like home. Despite some of the darker tones, I love the contrast it provides with some of the lighter touches too. “Steppin’ Out” to me is one of the best songs ever written – an ode to innocence in a sea of jaded experience. And perhaps this is the beauty of the record as a whole. It is smart enough to celebrate one, without discounting the other.