Joe Jackson is nobody’s fool
Way back in 1979, Joe Jackson named his jolting and smart debut “Look Sharp!,” which has a double meaning of both “dress nice” and “watch out.” Forty years on, his fine new album “Fool” seems to bear a far more unambiguous title. But it’s not necessarily so straightforward as that, he says. “I think the Fool is an ambiguous character,” says Jackson, who plays the Shubert Theatre Wednesday. “The Fool in Shakespeare’s plays often turns out to be either the smartest guy in the room or the only guy left standing at the end. So maybe he’s not such a fool after all. So I was definitely playing with that idea. He’s the guy who will tell you the truth when other people won’t, or he’ll do all the things you’re not supposed to do. But it’s a celebration of humor and how important it is, basically, that song.”
Q. I watched your “Tonight Show” performance of “Fabulously Absolute” immediately after listening to “Look Sharp!” again, and I was struck by how well it fit in with songs that you recorded 40 years ago. Were you deliberately trying to recapture the spirit of your debut album?
A. No, not at all. But, you know, sometimes things come out sounding a bit similar because it’s the same guy. [Chuckles] Of course, I was writing a rather sarcastic, humorous rant kind of song, so I guess that maybe ties in to some extent with the early stuff. I think there’s a few things about this album that are reminiscent of that era. But I wouldn’t say it’s deliberate, or even that it’s the main issue. There’s other sides to it as well.
Q. You’re an artist who hasn’t always held the most generous opinion towards humanity, and the songs on “Fool” . . .
A. Oh, that’s not true.
Q. You don’t think so?
A. No. Because if someone writes a few sarcastic or satirical lyrics, that means they’re a misanthrope? No, not at all. I have a great amount of faith in and love of humanity. I don’t particularly like the way that it sometimes manifests itself in people in authority. But I think that basically most people are alright some way or other. I think I’m pretty generous. But I guess people see things differently. I think sometimes you guys take things too seriously, like lyrics, for instance. I’ve often written things that have been taken as being very angry or cynical, and I’ve thought they were kind of funny.
Q. Maybe I’m off the mark here too, but throughout your catalog, it seems like you haven’t ever felt comfortable in your skin. As an example, on “Fool,” the song “Strange Land” hinges on the line, “Is this a strange land, or am I the stranger?”
A. Well, firstly, you’re absolutely entitled to be off the mark. [Laughs] You’re allowed to interpret it however you want. But the song, in my mind at least, is about feeling lost in a world that’s changed so much that you don’t recognize it anymore. In my case, this was New York. So that was the spark of that song, was just walking around in this city which has changed so radically since I loved it back in the ’80s that I sometimes feel like a ghost when I walk around there. But I didn’t want to write a song that said something like, “I’m walking down Second Avenue, what happened to so-and-so’s bar?” I didn’t want it that specific. It’s more of a general feeling of being a bit lost and alienated, which could affect anyone for different reasons.
I would say I feel pretty comfortable in my own skin. It was very interesting; when I wrote my book [“A Cure for Gravity”], a lot of it is about this journey to becoming an adult and becoming a musician and along the way feeling like a misfit. And so many people I’ve spoken to read that book and they’ve told me that they really related to that part of it, because they felt like a misfit too, growing up. And I started to think, well, everyone seems to feel like a misfit, so who actually is fitting in? I think it’s just a common human experience.
Q. Including the soundtrack to “Mike’s Murder,” you recorded your first six albums in the length of time it’s taken between [2015’s] “Fast Forward” and now “Fool.”
A. Oh my God.
Q. Do you miss that pace?
A. No, not at all. I don’t know how I did it. Well, I was young. I was in my 20s, what can I say? I actually think I put out way too much stuff in the ’80s, because it’s not consistently good. If I could change anything, I would probably take a few things out of that discography. But you know, there it is, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and generally speaking, I’m pretty happy with it.
Q. Since the rise of the #MeToo cultural conversation, I’ve been thinking of some of the music that I listened to as a teenager. And something that I was into a great deal was extremely bitter songs of love and sex, a lot of things like “Look Sharp!” and Elvis Costello and Michael Penn. Have you thought about how some of the songs that you wrote when you were younger speak to the current moment?
A. No, I haven’t. I didn’t really think about how they spoke to the moment back then, either. I feel like you do the best you can. You try to come up with something that you feel good about, you feel excited about and you’re having fun with, and hopefully you make something you feel proud of. And you put it out and you have no control over what happens from that moment on. You just hope for the best.
But also, I feel quite strongly that no artist is under any obligation to deliver a morally appropriate message. I simply don’t believe that. I think it’s extremely misguided. And I think if you start going down that road, you’re gonna really kill creativity. I think political correctness of the kind that you’re talking about is incompatible with creativity. I think it’s incompatible with humor as well. We’ve seen that happen. And I’m not sure that whatever good it does is worth the damage that it can do.
I think it’s a very strange cultural moment, and I think as an artist, your job is to create the best art you can. And people are free to hate it. They’re free to not buy it, whatever. But I’m damned if they’re going to censor it.
At the Shubert Theatre, Boston, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets $28.50-$58.50, www.bochcenter.org/JoeJackson