SEVEN YEARS have passed since Joe Jackson last released an album of original music. In another era, that previous sentence would have seemed very strange. Jackson—whose new LP, Fast Forward, comes out this week—has historically been a notorious workaholic, releasing a Herculean seven albums in the first five years of his career, and 20 total since 1979. Among those first releases was his striking debut, Look Sharp!, and the groundbreaking jazz/new wave fusion of Night and Day, which included hits "Steppin' Out" and "Breaking Us in Two."
With Fast Forward, interestingly, Jackson seems to have slowed his pace.
"I kept putting the brakes on this one. I can't really explain it," says Jackson. "Sometimes on my earlier albums I was in too much of a hurry. They might have been better if I left them a bit longer."
Originally planned as a series of EPs, Jackson eventually decided on one album based on four cities—New York City, Amsterdam, Berlin, and New Orleans. Four songs were recorded in each metropolis, using regional musicians and writing songs or choosing covers that best represented that city's mojo.
"These were all cities where there were musicians I really wanted to work with," he says.
During the NYC portion, Jackson enlisted Bill Frisell on guitar, Brian Blade on drums, his longtime bassist Graham Maby, and jazz violin star Regina Carter for tunes like "Kings of the City" and a nod to the Big Apple of old on a bold cover of Television's "See No Evil." Other notable collaborations included 14-year-old vocalist Mitchell Sink from Broadway's Matilda on the Amsterdam session, as well as bassist Greg Cohen (Tom Waits, Bob Dylan) in Berlin, and drummer Stanton Moore (Galactic) in New Orleans.
The title track emerges as a perfect opening song for the wide-open terrain Jackson explores on the rest of the record.
"That song has more lyrics than any other song I've ever written," says Jackson. "It just kept growing into something with a real sort of cosmic perspective, sort of like standing back and looking at planet Earth and everything and everyone on it. It seemed to encompass everything."
Like a lot of first-wave British punks, Jackson benefited from the musical immersion that defined the era. Before punk became fashion, its liberation from existing aural parameters made it a safe haven for songwriters and fans of all different types of music. Contemporaries like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Joe Strummer eventually cross-pollinated genres like maestro botanists, straying from their new-wave roots to country, jazz, classical, and beyond. Jackson, while receiving less attention than those three, traveled a similar path, exercising his right as an artist to dabble in whatever the hell he wanted to. He sustains that wanderlust on Fast Forward.
"If someone asks me to describe my new album or say what I think about it, I say, 'It's fucking great,'" says Jackson. "I don't know if anyone else is going to think that, so I think it's quite important to start off with me thinking it."