Joe Jackson has continually challenged himself over his career. Best known for his early work -- straight ahead guitar and bass driven rock and roll (such as "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "I'm the Man") -- Jackson has drifted from that, producing jazz and instrumental albums, as well as movie soundtracks (for little-known film Mike's Murder and even less-known Tucker). His previous album, Night Music, featured four related instrumental pieces, which he called "Nocturnes," separated by one or two songs, including one of Jackson's best tunes, "The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy," inspired by Faust. Jackson wanted to be free to continue in that direction, which has led him to sign with Sony Classical, which he felt gave him the most freedom as a composer. His first release for Sony Classical is the wonderful album, Heaven and Hell.
In Jackson's Heaven and Hell, the guitars of his early days have been replaced with violins, violas, and cellos, as well as an acoustic bass. But Heaven and Hell is still a collection of songs, so Jackson's departure from rock and roll music has not deprived his fans of his great lyrics. The inspiration for these songs is the seven deadly sins. The sins are addressed in order from smallest to largest -- gluttony, lust, avarice, sloth, anger, envy, and pride, respectively.
Jackson's perspective on the sins is interesting. He writes about envy from the perspective of the envied, rather than the person doing the envying. For gluttony, Jackson makes an analogy between pouring rain and pouring more food and drink down your throat, and avarice is depicted in the context of the war in Bosnia (the song is entitled Tuzla), where people are trying to take monetary advantage of others even under the most trying circumstances. The CD also includes a multimedia component, which features Jackson describing each of the songs.
Jackson has enlisted several guest vocalists to help present the sins; indeed, the album is formally by Joe Jackson and Friends. Suzanne Vega sings of lust from a prostitute's point of view ("Here's a young one/Hey Rufus/How's the rain on the rhubarb?/You wanna go out with me?"). Jane Siberry sings of being envied ("Down there in the ashes/There's gold and silver too/Dear sister, I try to share with you"). Brad Roberts (Crash Test Dummies) sings of sloth, which his bass voice perfectly oozes through ("Give me a Bud and a Slice/And leave out the book/I've got one of those, thank you"). Joy Askew, who's worked with Jackson before on Blaze of Glory and Laughter & Lust, as well as the Night and Day tour, sings the voice of conscience for avarice. Also, Dawn Upshaw appears on two songs, on lust as a good angel (to contrast Vega's fallen angel) and as the voice of forgetfulness in the song of avarice.
The music is played primarily by Jackson himself (piano and keyboards as well as the string section). However, he does have a few percussionists to help on some tracks. Sue Hadjopoulos plays congas and bongos for lust and envy. She's worked with Jackson several times, as far back as Night and Day. Also, the song for anger rocks (if there's one emotion that rock and roll captures really well, it's anger), featuring the dueling drums of Kenny Arnoff, who's been the drummer on several of John Mellencamp's albums, and Dan Hickey.
Heaven and Hell is a fine album. Those interested in music that does not fit into any neat little category (rock, pop, or classical) should be especially interested in it. And so should anyone else who appreciates good music.