Joe Jackson was never one to go with the flow. Having abandoned his 70s punkiness, he turned to retro jive and piano bar in the early 80s while everyone else rode the New Wave. Not for him the vacuity of pop; his songs spoke out to the thinking (wo)man, and not everybody appreciated his style. Some considered his material too pretentious or overly sentimental. Personally I think he was simply underrated.
Night & Day is Jackson's acclaimed concept album from '82. It's a scathing social commentary on modern life in the big city (specifically New York), with each side of the LP conscribed to the daytime and nighttime (with appropriately inverted labels). The subject matter is manifold, including TV addiction (TV Age), muggings (Target), health scares (Cancer), and conformity pressure (Real Men).
Musically Night & Day is a highly rhythmic blend, with strong Latin influences in some tracks; it's clear JJ learned a thing or two from Tito Puente. The overbearing element in every track is of course Jackson's piano, and his finesse on the keys is as clearly evident here as his songcraft.
Jackson's lyrics are sharp, witty, and thought-provoking ("TV rules... all you fools"), at times even downright apocalyptic ("kill all the blacks, kill all the reds, and if there's war between the sexes then there'll be no people left"). This is high brow stuff; of course your mileage (and acceptance) may vary...
Thankfully the album's acrid tone is counterbalanced by a few optimistic tracks, notably the uplifting Steppin' Out with its sweet blend of piano, glockenspiel, electronic percussion, and one of the most instantly recognisable basslines ever conceived. If there's a song on this album that truly exudes 80s charm, this is it. Simple, almost naive, yet pure class! Released as a successful single, it received substantial airplay (and still does occasionally) and is considered JJ's signature tune.
Paradoxically, one of the least-80s-sounding albums is now recognised as a gem of its era. Go figure.