I hated Joe Jackson until I was dragged to a concert during his Night Music tour. Everything about the show was amazing, and he converted me into a fan that night. I don't love everything he's done, but there are few musicians who possess a more perfect mixture of musical talent, literary wit, sarcastic bite, urbane charm, and artistic integrity. He is one of only a few trained musicians who seems -- even 30 years into his career -- to genuinely understand the subversive and revolutionary mindset of punk. At his worst, he is mediocre; at his best, he is a perfect example of rock music's limitless possibilities.
Volume 4 contains both great and mediocre moments. The album opens with a punch, but the energy gradually dissipates into an album whose upbeat songs tend to be much more pedestrian than it's quieter moments. "Little Bit Stupid" and "Dirty Martini" could be throwaway tracks from an early Foreigner album, but the lyrics and music of songs like "Love at First Light" demonstrate every bit of Jackson's versatility and talent. Overall, the lyrics aren't amazing, but Jackson's bitter sarcasm is as sharp as ever.
The EPFL's version of Vol. 4 comes with a six-song live EP. From the opening of "One More Time," the EP shows that Jackson is still a formidable live performer who hasn't lost any of the energy, excitement, or creativity that defines his stellar live album, Live 1980/86
The cover image is clever: it shows the volume knob of an old amplifier, with the knob turned to "4." (Get it? The volume is on 4? Volume 4!) Otherwise, the jacket is pretty basic. It contains lyrics, credits, and a decent photo of Jackson and his bandmates, the same group of guys who played with him on his first few albums. Art director Frank Olinsky should've had the sense not to break the lyrics of "Blue Flame" so half of the words are printed before the band photo and half are printed after.
Listen if you like: Anyone who likes the early Joe Jackson records should give this a listen, and there's a lot here for fans of Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. People who like Madness or the English Beat should enjoy tracks like "Thugz 'R' Us," as should any Baltimore citizens who are annoyed by the stupid white kids from Howard County who emulate the dealers and bangers who drag this city down into an abyss of violence and poverty. I'd also suggest that anyone who loves Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" might like the piano in "Take It Like a Man."
If it were food, it'd be: Dark chocolate. Its complex richness depends entirely upon the bitterness and beauty of its core ingredient.