With the release of his explosive, retro-synthy, sonically intricate and vocally hypnotic apocalypse/aftermath concept album Black Jackal, Anchorage based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Paul Jacks is quickly becoming the indie pop world’s most engaging purveyor of the classic A-side/B-side aesthetic that was once the norm in the rock era.
Back at the start of 2020 – admittedly a realm that seems like at least a century ago now – Jacks manifested his lifelong passion in the power of B-sides to reflect deeper artistry as a series of three two sided singles, complete with distinctive artwork. Jacks’ unique approach to releasing singles was bound to inspire a similar presentation when it came time to release his full-length follow-up to his critically acclaimed second album In Other Words.
So it’s hardly a surprise that Black Jackal is more than a spirited and infectious whirlwind of his new wave and goth influences, featuring the beautiful echoes of his emotional yet mystically ethereal vocals. We may get caught up in the big, bold freewheeling, deeply rhythmic and atmospheric productions, but clearly, as we transport landscapes from side A (pre-apocalyptic state) to side B (the aftermath/afterlife), the narrative’s the thing.
The question you might ask yourself as you both dig deep into and glide (like an impactful movie scene you can’t get out of your mind until the next one starts) from the toe tapping, synth and brass fired opening track “Lunacy’s Back” though the lyrically somber and regretful yet musically uplifting and hopeful “Walk Alone” is “Considering that this is 2020, how much of this is pure fiction and how much is and could be actual fact?” Sure, we learn that “Lunacy’s Back” is a vibrant reworking of a tune Jacks has had in his back pocket since 2003 (the year he released his first solo single) – but doesn’t the title kind of say it all about planet COVID? And don’t lines like “Can’t express this loneliness/When I was standing on the bridge” (from “No One Else”) and “I feel the hunger tonight/Got my blood to a boil/Will you cure me somehow?” (from the lyrically plaintive but rhythmically propulsive lead single “The Hunger”) capture how we’re feeling at least part of every day?
Then at the beginning of the relatively lighthearted but still thematically dark title track, he sings “No escape from a world all forlorn,” which takes us to the end of Side A, with a title that hits the nail on the head: “Quarantine.” Whether it’s sci fi or just real life sci, we get to that point seeking a path of redemption from Jacks, and maybe a bit of hope, even if it’s from the brilliant fictional world in his expansive musical mind? He provides a little fix on tracks like the hypno-atmospheric “Acres of Diamonds,” balancing the reality that we may never find the diamonds – and the fact that the only property left is on the moon - with his defiant declaration that “I long to be free/Open the door.” His aftermath assumes survival (and that’s a step up, right) – and he emphasizes this point on the more whimsical, piano driven “Always Something To It,” when he sings the bridge “I just gotta make it back in one piece and stay alive.”
The rousing synth washes of “In Between Us” can’t disguise just how close Jacks’ vision of a strange future actually resembles our lives now: “There’s a killer here amongst us. . .I feel nervous/Don’t come in closer/Always danger.” He relates a sense of despair and loneliness throughout “Into the Silence” and “Walk Alone,” which ends with the wistful mantra lamenting what we can hope is still possible in the future (say, a C side or sequel?): “We could have been a miracle long waiting to happen/We could have been love at first sight.”
After such a rollercoaster of lighthearted 80s-centric pop synth magic and heavy themes, it’s certainly inspiring to hear Jacks say (in real life), “I’m living a very musical life right now regardless of playing out or not, but we fully intend to be playing some shows in the near future including songs from Black Jackal.” Maybe there’s hope to be had after all!