Jackson's new album: cosmopolitan mix

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

JOE Jackson strikes an existential chord on his latest album, ``Big World.'' Rather than addressing carnal concerns or teenage Angst, as much pop music does today, the British singer/songwriter plays the role of bemused tour guide on a global trot, commenting on how the very nature of travel allows one to step outside his or her own particular view of the world. ``Some people go through life basically only being really interested in what's happening in their own back yard, but I could never understand that,'' says Jackson, who now makes his home in Manhattan. ``I've always thought, if there's been anything I've gained from having the success I've had as a pop musician, the ability to travel has definitely been the best thing.''

Jackson broke onto the scene with his impressive debut album for A&M, ``Look Sharp,'' in 1979. Snarling and cynical, full of melodic hooks, it was a refreshing record for the times. Along with the music of fellow Brits Elvis Costello and the Police, Jackson's snappy beats, clever chord progressions, substantial lyrics, and wry sense of humor ushered in an exciting era in pop music.

Not one to rest on his laurels or get locked into a formula, Jackson ventured into reggae with his self-produced 1980 album, ``Beat Crazy.'' And in 1981 he surprised everyone with ``Jumpin' Jive,'' his tribute to the music of Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, and the general ambiance of the 1940s.

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``I really wanted to pay tribute to these artists and let kids know about this music that they may have missed out on, because it's such great stuff,'' says Jackson. ``It should be kept alive.''

Then in ``Night and Day,'' he flirted with salsa music and came away with a Grammy nomination for the single ``Steppin' Out.'' Suddenly critics were dubbing him ``a new-age Ellington,'' praising his gifts for composition and arranging. Where he once had been a cult figure, Joe Jackson had now become a star with mass appeal.

He took a stab at soundtracks in 1983, scoring music for the ill-fated ``Mikes' Murder.'' Then in 1984 he released ``Body and Soul,'' his most personal, introspective album to date.

Now comes ``Big World,'' in which Jackson plays a detached narrator rather than baring his soul to the audience. It's an aural travelogue, a potpourri of sound. With 15 songs and nearly as many different musical styles to choose from, ``Big World'' is easily Jackson's most eclectic album yet.

From the Middle Eastern tonalities of the title cut to the Argentinean flair of ``Tango Atlantico,'' from the Italian schmaltz of ``Fifty Dollar Love Affair'' to the lilting waltz of ``Forty Years,'' this album covers musical styles that traverse the globe.

``I think my music is a mixture of a lot of different things because I am by nature . . . pretty cosmopolitan. So if I don't have a very strong style of my own on this album I hope that I at least have a reasonably unique way of mixing styles togther,'' Jackson says.

If the musical modes don't interest you, the lyrics just might. Certainly Jackson's songs about President Reagan (``Right and Wrong''), England's involvement in the Falklands (``Tango Atlantico''), and insensitive tourists abroad (``The Jet Set'') are bound to provoke thought, if not debate.

``I guess I like to try and do my little bit to stimulate people's minds,'' he offers with a mischievous smile.

The scathing view of the Reagan administration in ``Right and Wrong'' has brought some criticism Jackson's way. ``I've been accused of being anti-American, which is not true,'' he says. ``But I think that America deserves its fair share of criticism, same as everywhere else. I don't want to sound arrogant or anything, but if Americans would take the trouble to pick up European newspapers now and then, they'd get whole different sides to the story that they never realized. But because they have a fairly high standard of living compared to most places, Americans tend to be comfortable and unquestioning.''

Besides its content, the actual recording of ``Big World'' was something of a first. Rather than going into a studio and manufacturing a record in the customary way -- building up one track at a time through the use of overdubs and countless studio tricks to enhance the sound -- Jackson and company recorded the album live on two tracks, not the 32 or 48 tracks which are more common today. ``Big World'' was recorded over three nights at the Roundabout Theatre in Manhattan, with two shows per night. So Jackson and producer David Kershenbaum had six versions of each tune to choose from in putting the record together.

``It was like live television. There was no turning back,'' Mr. Kershenbaum explains. ``It was real tense. But it was that element of surprise and spontaneity that Joe wanted to capture, so that's what we went for.''

Jackson adds that the excitement of the live situation helped push him to a level of intensity that he could never achieve in the studio. ``I think I've always performed better in front of an audience, and to finally capture that on record is great,'' he says.

Jackson's performance on ``Big World'' is indeed exciting. He attacks blazing rockers like ``Survival'' and ``Tonight and Forever'' with a kind of fervor that he hadn't yet displayed on record. And his tender moments, such as the melancholy ``Shanghai Sky'' and the soulful lament, ``We Can't Live Together,'' are marked with a kind of feeling that only comes out in times of true inspiration. 30--{et

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