It’s fair to say that Joe Jackson has had almost as many musical guises as Neil Young. There’s Classical Joe who won a Grammy for his Symphony Number 1, there’s the Big Band/Swing era Joe, and the Pop/New Wave era Joe. He’s even duetted with William Shatner for that infamous cover of Pulp‘s Common People.
For Rain, his first album in four years, Jackson has returned to the style that he made his name with – that of piano based, slightly jazzy pop songs. It’s a canny move – numbers like Steppin’ Out and Is She Really Going Out With Him haven’t dated in the slightest – and Jackson, together with his old cohorts Graham Maby and Dave Houghton sound on top form throughout.
Unusually perhaps, Rain was recorded without a guitar to be heard anywhere. All ten songs here are built around piano, bass and drums and the result is, perhaps inevitably, rather similar to a less manic Ben Folds Five. Jackson’s virtuoso skills on the piano are well demonstrated, whether it be on the skittish funk of the opening Invisible Man or the more impressive stark chords of Solo (So Long).
Throughout Rain is perfectly crafted adult pop. Lovelorn ballad Wasted Time harks back to his heyday, a sad, regret-filled track reflecting on a failed relationship. The energetic shuffle of Good Bad Boy proves that piano-based songs need not be dull or boring, with Jackson’s fingers seemingly everywhere as he pounds the piano. King Pleasure Time is in a similar mode – upbeat, energetic and catchy.
While most of the album sounds perfectly nice tinkering in the background, more detailed listens do reveal some flaws. For some reason, Jackson insists on adopting a falsetto vocal during most songs, which can become slightly irritating at times. Also, with most tracks having a running time of over 5 minutes, there’s an overlong feel to some songs, with some being dragged out slightly beyond their natural lifespan.
When Jackson’s on form though, he gets it just right. The aforementioned Solo (So Low) is a case in point, Jackson’s interest in classical music having a huge influence here. The stark piano chords suit the lyrics about loneliness and depression, and it makes a nice change from the sometimes grating lounge-jazz pop on offer elsewhere.
Ultimately, Rain is slightly too smooth to count as a complete success. While Jackson’s fans will love it, others may yearn for a touch of grit and dirt – maybe a touch of guitars or a horn section would have provided that. Yet it’s still a reminder that Jackson can be, when he puts his mind to it, one of the country’s finest songwriters.