Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of Joe Jackson's "I'm the Man"

I posted this a little while earlier on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: This is as fine an example of late '70s new wave pop as you could find, featuring songs full of working class themes and working class dreams.

I'm the Man, released in 1979, was British musician Joe Jackson's second LP. It built on the success of his debut album, Look Sharp, which had been released earlier that same year, and helped to make him an international star. In later years, Jackson moved into other genres such as jazz and classical, much like Elvis Costello, the artist to whom he is most often compared. At this point in his career, though, his music was firmly in the new wave category, with just a pinch of punk attitude.

Look Sharp brought Jackson fame largely on the strength of the hit single "Is She Really Going Out With Him?", and to a lesser extent, to significant U.S. FM radio airplay of tracks such as "Sunday Papers" and the title track. In contrast, I'm the Man, scored slightly lower on the U.S. album charts but significantly higher in the UK, and featured a single that did less well in the U.S. but hit #5 on the British charts, "Different for Girls". It also had a number of other tracks that received frequent FM airplay , including "On Your Radio", "I'm the Man", "Get That Girl" and "Friday".

In many ways, I'm the Man is about as fine an example of new wave pop rock as you could find. The music is dominated by frequently-rapid guitar licks, and by Jackson's brash vocals, with sprinklings of harmonica, piano and melodica just to give it some flavor. Many of the more striking songs are faster numbers -- tracks such as "On Your Radio", "I'm the Man", "Don't Wanna Be Like That" and "Get That Girl" almost race each other, as they give the album a sometimes breathless pace. Nevertheless, slower tracks like "It's Different for Girls" and lesser known gems "Geraldine and John" and "The Band Wore Blue Shirts" add depth and heart.

Lyrical themes vary throughout I'm the Man. "On Your Radio" is essentially an extended middle finger to everyone and anyone who made Jackson's life miserable in his early years. "I'm famous now, so bite me!" is the main message here, and let's face it -- given the opportunity, who wouldn't be tempted to do the same? "Kinda Kute", on the other hand, is sort of a benevolent stalker song. On this one, the track's well-meaning protagonist likes to sit in the club and watch his would-be paramour dance, or to show up unexpectedly in places he knows she'll be, but it's all okay because she mostly finds him amusing. And "Get That Girl" takes the whole dance theme in a different direction, as Jackson threatens to use his charm and superior dance moves to steal the girl of his dreams away from a less-deserving competitor. Finally, "It's Different for Girls" plays around with traditional gender role expectations -- on this one, it's the girl who's just out for a good time, while her used and confused boyfriend tries to have the dreaded "love" conversation.

The title track of I'm the Man is one of the album's best. It's a frenzied tribute to a huckster, the kind of guy who can sell anything and everything to an increasingly gullible public, creating new trends such as hula-hoops and kung-fu at the time of the LP's release, (and if the song had been written today, he'd have doubtlessly been responsible for those annoying fidget spinners as well). On a different note, "Friday", follows the life-changes of a fun-loving flower child who leaves her care-free youth behind for the drudgery of a 40-hour work week. "She don't care no more," Jackson explains, "she gets paid on Friday."

I'm the Man makes no claim to be high art. It's a pop LP filled with working class themes and occasionally working-class dreams, all of which contributed to its popularity. It's also a miniature time capsule of what pop rock music was like as the world prepared to enter the 1980s. Mostly, though, it's just a strong album full of fun songs, the majority of which still hold up pretty well today.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars