Album Assignments: Night And Day

In 1982, Joe Jackson was an Englishman in New York. He’d grown musically restless, impatient with genre pigeonholing that wanted to call him New Wave, or Rock And Roll, or Angry Young Man, or what have you. His last record had tried to shrug off the whole scene by devoting itself completely to loving covers of jump blues classics by artists like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway.

But while Jumpin’ Jive was a delightful diversion, it was after all just a covers album. It was time for Jackson to get back to writing and performing, but not to go back to the Joe Jackson Band sound of his first three albums, as great as they were. He wanted to move forward, and keep dodging labels. So he focused his creative process on the city around him. He watched it, from beauty to terror, from freedom to isolation, and he listened to it, salsa sounds pouring from Puerto Rican groceries, piano ballads in smoky clubs, the Broadway legacy stretching back to Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

He poured all of it into Night And Day, and found a sound that defined its difference from the rock + roll mainstream by what it omitted: guitar. There isn’t a note of guitar on this album, allowing the piano to occupy center stage unchallenged. Into the generous spaces left over stepped an extraordinary rhythm section: longtime Jackson bassist Graham Maby, drummer Larry Tolfree, and percussion by the astonishing Sue Hadjopoulos, who brought a whole spice cabinet of new and thrilling flavors to Jackson’s sound.

Album cover for Night And Day

The cover art and title of Night And Day are meant to evoke Porter, but for much of this album Jackson comes a lot closer to Tito Puente. The first half of the album especially is awash in Latin syncopation and fascinating rhythms. Since albums still had sides back in 1982, Jackson took advantage of the split and literalized his title a step further, dubbing the first five songs the “Night Side” and the other four the “Day Side.” The distinction becomes a little dubious upon close inspection, but there are some important differences.

Rhythm dominates the night — right from the start we get 20 seconds of percussion before any other instrument joins in on “Another World”, and even then it’s a highly rhythmic piano part, pouncing and skittering up and down the scales. For much of the night side, the piano acts a lot like another drum, albeit one that can play different notes, taking its place among xylophones, vibraphones, and bells. Those polyrhythms make the night side addictive and exciting.

The songs on the night side all overlap, segueing smoothly into one another, and spinning through a variety of moods. “Another World” sees the city as a vibrant haven for misfits, a luminously alive place where you can find a welcome even when the rest of the world tells you “no”. (Jackson would revist this theme more comedically in “Stranger Than You”, from his sequel to the Night And Day album, the aptly titled Night And Day II.) Strangely, Jackson calls this experience “like day from night”, with day being the city and night being the rest of the world — an odd way to start the night side of this album.

But the darkness sets in soon enough. The narrator of “Chinatown” is lost and menaced, careening from one uneasy experience to another, culminating in his discovery of a murder victim being hassled by a cop. If there’s a loose narrative to the side (and I would argue that the crossfades suggest one), this harrowing journey drives him to take shelter indoors, just him and his TV, in “T.V. Age”. Here it doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night — “we send out for food, get the news on video.” He’s cocooned in safety, only to discover that, in fact, his TV is part of an alien invasion intent on taking over the earth. No kidding.

If that sounds paranoid, it fits in perfectly with “Target”, in which the narrator feels constantly under threat, no matter when or where he is. “I’m no one special,” he says, “But any part of town / Someone could smile at me then / Shake my hand then gun me down.” (And this was 1982, mind you.) Once again, the distinction between day and night gets erased: “Black, white, day, night / No one’s fussy, I’m a target.”

The relief and redemption from all this awful anxiety comes in the last song of the night side, Jackson’s biggest hit, “Steppin’ Out.” Here in fact is the first song on this side where it’s crystal clear lyrically that it’s nighttime — the narrator and his lover are steppin’ out “into the night / into the light.” Maby really shines on this track, with a scintillating bass groove punctuated by Jackson’s chiming piano. The song presents the New York City night as full of promise and wonder, the place lovers can go when they’ve no more angry words to say, when they’re tired of all the darkness in their lives — “electricity so fine” turns the night into a fairyland that restores their youth and possibilities. For so much of the night side, the city has made us wonder why anyone would stay here, but the misty secrets of its lights hold the chance for magic to happen.

“Steppin’ Out” is a marvelous song, and it deserves every bit of praise and popularity it’s gotten, but my favorite Joe Jackson song of all time is the one that opens the day side: “Breaking Us In Two.” Jackson sets aside the whirling polyrhythms and delivers a gorgeous, aching melody perfectly inlaid with piano, congas, bass, and cymbals. He also delivers some of the best lyrics he’s ever written. “Though it’s oh so nice to get advice / It’s oh so hard to do.” “You don’t do the things that I do / You want to do things I can’t do.” And best of all:

Could we be much closer if we tried?
We could stay at home and stare into each other’s eyes
Maybe we could last an hour
Maybe then we’d see right through
Always something breaking us in two

What a quietly devastating expression of struggling for connection in a relationship that’s falling apart. The album’s day begins with a hangover — from an evening bursting with promise of new beginnings, the merciless light of day reveals only endings.

From there, we get a burst of comic relief, and a return of the Latin cadences from side one, not to mention its paranoia, as Jackson sardonically relates his conclusion that “everything gives you cancer.” Yet another high point follows, the piano ballad “Real Men.” With another genius riff and more excellent lyrics, Joe Jackson deconstructs gender and sexuality norms about 30 years ahead of his time, saying “it’s got to change more” well ahead of when it would. The lyric “You don’t wanna sound dumb / Don’t want to offend / So don’t call me a faggot, not unless you are a friend” remains genuinely shocking to this day.

The day side ends with a return to the night. Jackson’s narrator is steppin’ out again, but “A Slow Song” finds him frustrated with the club atmosphere. In a pulsating disco he’s “brutalized by bass / and terrorized by treble”, wanting only “a strong and silent sound” to help him make that yearned-for connection with his lover. “A Slow Song” is, in fact, a slow song, but it’s phenomenally full of intensity when Jackson scales the chorus. The soaring wordless shouts of “Real Men” seem like they’re as impassioned as Jackson can get, until we hear his anguished vocal on this song — every time he hits the word “slow” in this chorus, it’s an incredibly cathartic musical experience.

I don’t usually write these reviews in this structure, stepping through every song of an album in sequence. But with Night And Day, there wasn’t a single song I was willing to leave out, and traveling through the album now is as rewarding as it was 36 years ago. It’s a pinnacle, an absolute masterpiece from a musical giant who cannot be contained.

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