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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 notdo 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."