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Where Grace Jones breathed her brand of noirish pomposity into taut reggae reinterpretations and a handful of originals on her seminal 1981 album Nightclubbing, its follow-up and the final installment of her Compass Point trilogy Living My Life is a lighter and less self-conscious record.
Here, the sole cover is Melvin Van Peebles’ “The Apple Stretching”, which is sadly not a nod to New York’s contemporary population of unconvincing transvestite men, but instead a drowsy, largely spoken-word ode to the city itself.
You may feel shortchanged by the omission of the punk–tinged and thrillingly relevant title track, featuring a head-turning lyric more befitting the name of a memoir: “As much as I can / as black as I am!”. Written by Jones herself, its new wave thrash would’ve nonetheless have sounded incongruous among the album’s balmier productions.
There’s a reason the set’s first two tracks “My Jamaican Guy” and “Nipple to the Bottle” are the only ones to make it into Jones’ current live repertoire with any regularity. On first listen, the tracks that follow serve almost as B-sides to their precise yet transcendent structures.
It helps that both songs capture two very important sides of an albeit multifaceted personality – with its oft-sampled opening splashes of liquid-gold synth, “My Jamaican Guy” is pure stoned romanticism, while “Nipple to the Bottle” sports a vicious bite.
Were it not crammed with scintillating insights into Jones’ relationship with artist Jean Paul Goude, “Nipple” could be embraced by any oppressed minority. Over smacking drums and a scorched, wriggling beat reminiscent of “Pull Up to the Bumper”, her voice may only fleetingly scratch beneath the surface of her pain, but every steadfast protest of “I won’t give in, / and I won’t feel guilty!” is repeated by a mob seemingly on the front line of a coup.
Later, Jones lays down the gauntlet in spectacular fashion: “If I don’t give it, / how you gonna get it?”. By challenging a lover to get their kicks either by force or an outside party, Jones automatically puts herself in the right, and once again symbolises complete autonomy.
The hit single “My Jamaican Guy” is a different beast. That famous preamble is led by the hand, “Club Tropicana”-style, into the smokiest, most soulful fleapit Kingston has to offer, but Jones’ earworm songwriting holds its own against such an authentic sound. Her witty patois chorus features variations on the lyric “‘cause he’s laid back / not laying back”, and Grace lovingly describing her amour as “never standing by the door / just stretching out pan de floor / that way him don’t fall over” is something only she would do.
Little else on the second half can match the modern appeal of these two tracks, nor is there anything as avant garde as “Private Life” or “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” from 1980’s Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing to be found.
“Everybody Hold Still” sails by on corny storytelling and a distracted vocal. Once again, an excitable choir is employed on the chorus, but the melody is ineffectual. More successful is “Cry Now – Laugh Later”, which spins such potentially bitter subjects as deportation and car hijackings into a celebratory groove, aided by funky organ-like keyboards and slo-mo guitar plucks.
The touching R&B ballad “Inspiration” showcases Jones’ impeccable restraint as a vocalist, particularly on a soaring bridge that’s straight out of the Bowie CliffsNotes. Considering this would be Jones’ last release with creative soulmates Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare until 2008’s Hurricane, it’s the musical equivalent of posting an advert for a new svengali on CraigsList. Tucking lyrics like “I’m hoping to find a new source of information / I’ll step off the line / I’ve been searching for some inspiration” towards the album’s end is a poignant touch.
Despite its lack of truly shocking highs, Living My Life is a satisfying end to an iconic and game-changing trilogy. In a pop landscape where strict quality control can be something of a novelty, one might even wish that title track was on hand to add some grit. It would have stuck out like a sequined thumb, but then isn’t ostentatiousness what Grace Jones does best?