Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Jam

  • In the City [Polydor, 1977] A-
  • This Is the Modern World [Polydor, 1977] B+
  • All Mod Cons [Polydor, 1979] B
  • Setting Sons [Polydor, 1980] B+
  • The Jam [Polydor EP, 1981] B
  • The Gift [Polydor, 1982] B
  • The Bitterest Pill [Polydor EP, 1982] B
  • Snap! [Polydor, 1983] B+
  • The Sound of the Jam [Polydor, 2003] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

In the City [Polydor, 1977]
Here we find an English hard-rock trio who wear short hair and dark suits, say "fuck" a lot, and sound rather like The Who Sing My Generation, even mentioning James Brown in one song. They also claim a positive social attitude--no police state in the U.K., but no anarchy either. Is this some kind of put-up job, pseudo-punk with respect for the verities? Could be, but it doesn't matter. When they complain that Uncle Jimmy the "red balloon" (or is it "reveloo"?) never walks home at night, they've got his number, but when they accuse him of sleeping between silk sheets they're just blowing someone else's hot air. In the end, they could go either way--or both. In the meantime, though, they blow me out. These boys can put a song together; they're both powerful enough to subsume their sources and fresh enough to keep me coming back for more. A-

This Is the Modern World [Polydor, 1977]
The naive, out-of-the-mouths-of-careerists clumsiness is endearing partly because it gets at truths too obvious to interest the sophisticated; the assumption that the word modern has sociopolitical import, for instance, is laughably autodidactic at one level and yet not without resonance when pounded out over and over. Would that the pounding were a little more flexible--this might rock as invitingly as their first if only it were varied with some appropriate covers. How about "Kicks"? B+

All Mod Cons [Polydor, 1979]
Far from the posers cynics believe them to be, these guys are almost painfully sincere, and on this album their desire to write commercial songs that say something is palpable and winning. Unfortunately, their success is mixed at best, and the music is so tentative that I was surprised by how hard they made a set of new material rock in concert. But last year's set rocked even harder. And though I can overlook the record's gaffes and forced lines and faint playing in the aftermath of the show, I'm too much of a cynic to believe the glow will last. B

Setting Sons [Polydor, 1980]
Likable lads, as always, and improving themselves, too. The music has gained density and power, and they do OK with the social commentary--nice to see some empathy for doomed middle-class plodders like "Smithers-Jones" instead of the usual contempt, and "The Eton Rifles" and "Little Boy Soldiers" place them firmly on the left. On the other hand, some of this is pretty dumb ("Wasteland," ugh), and overarrangement (not so much extra instruments as dramatic vocal shifts) is no way to disguise thin melody. B+

The Jam [Polydor EP, 1981]
There are two theories about these guys--one that they're getting better, the other that they're getting worse. As you might fear, this interim product ("5 British Hit Singles," boasts the sticker, so imagine how excited they are in Britain) proves both--songwriting up, punk excitement gone forever. B

The Gift [Polydor, 1982]
It's easy to understand why this is Britannia's favorite band--their dedication is very winning. Nobody plays ex-punk quasifunk with less ostentation or more skill, and Paul Weller goes Springsteen one better--not only is he working-class, he's young. As usual, his good-heartedness is palpable here. He takes on suburban racism, nine-to-five fatigue, even general strike without talking down or claiming exemption from sin. And if he's written half a dozen good melodies since he stopped settling for Who hand-me-downs, three of them have passed me by. B

The Bitterest Pill [Polydor EP, 1982]
Fan fodder there, where Paul Weller is a god; cult fodder here, where he's an artist. It made sense for him to revive a Pete Townshend obscurity on his previous EP-in-waiting, and the arty horn and bassline touches on the evergreen "War" are not without interest. But only worshippers want his "Fever." In fact, agnostics aren't sure about the title tune either. B

Snap! [Polydor, 1983]
They never got past second base here for the same reason cricket didn't. What's made Paul Weller such a hero in England is his Englishness--ever since he outgrew the pure punk urbanism of In the City, his closely observed lyrics have worked to reflect a national culture exactly as universal as dozens of others. Given his charming but nonetheless limiting musical limitations, he's no more a world musician than Winston Rodney or Sunny Adé, and probably less. Because he doesn't share a gift for the riff with his mod hero Pete Townshend, even his hits get across more on tension and tenderness than on such body-balms as melody or his proudly proferred beat. This is where you'll find the hits, and where to begin. If he hits you where you live, or where you wished you live, All Mod Cons is the one his admirers love. I prefer In the City myself. B+

The Sound of the Jam [Polydor, 2003]
Catch him before he turns into John Cougar Mellencamp--oops, too late ("In the City," "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight"). ***