In 1990, Joe Jackson had just signed a spiffy new deal with Virgin Records after spending 10 years and 11 albums under A&M. Many bands use the first album with a new label as an opportunity to make a fresh start and try new things (or, perhaps, sell out). Heart, for example, became a completely different band once they signed with Capitol, as did the Cure when they inked with Elektra. Heck, when Adam Ant signed with Capitol, he made an acoustic pop record. Jackson, however, had no interest in changing, diminishing returns be damned. In fact, Laughter & Lust is basically a stripped down version of its predecessor, Blaze of Glory (1989), with a recurring lyrical theme: The Bitch Broke My Heart.
The first third of Laughter & Lust is, for the most part, drama-free, and shows off Jackson’s ever-sardonic sense of humor. “The Obvious Song” is a driving, ‘Wake up, world!’ rant, and the video he shot for it, featuring Jackson dressed in hair metal garb, a la New Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God,” was the first clip of his that MTV aired in almost a decade. Jackson also whips up a lean cover of Peter Green’s “Oh Well” and a back-handed wave of dismissal to the music industry on “Hit Single,” where he sings from the POV of a man who’s accepted his fate as a one-hit wonder and laughs at those who are still trying to change the world with a song. (“If you think that being serious and smart gets you where you should be / You must be not only joking, but way too heavy for me.”) The only time the girl comes up is in “Stranger Than Fiction,” where he beautifully summed up the madness that love can inflict on a person. “I love her so much that I don’t even know what planet I’m on / Love her so much, I wish she’d just go away.” If you’ve never been in one of those relationships, you’re lucky. If you have, then you know exactly what Jackson is singing about. And he’s just getting started.
“It’s All Too Much” is innocent enough in the verses, as Jackson sings of how overblown everything has gotten (“Two hundred kinds of cookies, 87 kinds of chocolate chip,” etc.), but he comes around to the point in the chorus when he admits, “It’s all too much to struggle through, especially without you / Please come home, honey, please come home.” “When You’re Not Around” covers similar territory but without the humor, delving into the self-loathing that consumes people even when they have a way out of a bad relationship. Of course, when someone unlucky in love sees a way out, they usually also see another person who can “save them,” the one that would never treat them the way she did. And wouldn’t you know it, Jackson wrote a song about her, too.
“The Other Me” is one of the album’s highlights, as Jackson’s character is clearly torn between two lovers (or at least one lover and one potential lover), and feeling like a fool. He knows that he’d be better off with the other woman, but damned if he can bring himself to leave his current girlfriend (spouse?). What’s great about the song is its brutal honesty; Jackson doesn’t get overly dramatic, instead choosing to lay it out in the simplest terms. “When I see you there alone, it almost breaks my heart / But it doesn’t break enough for me to break my whole life apart.” Jackson even points his finger at people who write silly love songs, and chastises them for poisoning listeners with the notion that love will conquer all, and they just need to stick things out. Fuck that, says Joe. “Me, I blame the old songs / Protect us all against a change of course / All our great expectations / Turn to alimony and remorse,” he sneers on “The Old Songs.” Jackson closes the affair with “Drowning,” a stark piano ballad about a guy who’s seemingly fresh off a breakup, and therefore extremely vulnerable to his ex’s ways of persuasion. Jackson’s Wiki page is pretty sparse on personal information, so it’s unclear whether this cycle of songs was inspired by real events, but it’s hard to imagine that he just made this stuff up. It feels too real, too raw, to be fiction.
Admittedly, Laughter & Lust will sound best to someone in a very specific stage in their lives, where it’s time for them to figure out who they are and what they want. (For most, it’s their early twenties.) It’s a time of endless possibilities, but also uncertainty, emotional volatility, and regrettable mistakes. Once you’ve moved past it, you thank your lucky stars that those days are gone, and that’s the catch with the album, too – it’ll be there for you in a way that no friend or relative could ever be, but once you’re in a better place, you might be loath to bring Laughter & Lust with you to higher ground. On a personal note, the album got me through one hell of a blue period, so for that I am grateful. But too many bad associations prevent me from playing it more than once every six or seven years. Sorry, Joe. Thank you, but sorry.