Peter Gelb, president of Sony Classical, terms the record "a tour-de-force of composition and performance." And for the composer himself, the album's "timeless theme" provided a springboard for the kind of project he does best - one which incorporates elements of several traditions, but transcends genre or fashion. While Jackson's vocals shine in parts of 'Heaven and Hell,' the singer says, "I can't be limited as a composer by the limitations of my own voice." Similarly, Jackson can no longer be defined as a 'singer-songwriter,' but only as a composer, and one who defies categorisation. "My musical background is very eclectic, and it just doesn't feel natural or honest to me to work within one specific genre," says Joe. "Besides, I think the question of 'what style is it?' is the least important one. What's important is whether something has passion and originality, whether it stimulates and moves people, whether it's ALIVE."
For Sony Classical, too, 'Heaven and Hell' embodies a pioneering approach. Peter Gelb comments, "In working with artists like Joe, who transcend genre, we're trying to redefine the role of a classical label. We want to return to the idea of classical music as an emotional experience for the listener. Using musicians, from whatever background, whom he felt would best interpret his ideas, Joe has come up with exactly the kind of record that, while it's brilliantly inventive, will also stoke that emotional chord." Joe's perspective on the new signing is simply that "I went where the most enthusiasm was. And so-called 'classical' labels seem to be more open-minded than pop labels right now."
Recorded at Avatar Studios in New York City in the winter of '96-'97, 'Heaven and Hell' grew out of two years of intensive research into the literature and iconography of Sin. "I wanted a theme to hold an album together. The Deadly Sins was one of several I had in mind, but it kept growing on me! At first I thought, 'it's been done before' - but actually that's one of the things that makes it interesting - it's a universal theme that everyone interprets differently." Joe says that the resulting song-cycle is very much about paradoxes and contrasts: Good and Evil, Beauty and Ugliness, Pain and Pleasure. "I was intrigued by the idea that all of these Sins are inside all of us, but they have dark and light sides - they're gateways to either heaven or hell. Also, I found a lot of humour in this theme - a lot of the record is satirical and funny, at least to me, anyway!" The actual sequence of the Sins also inspired Jackson. "Traditionally, they're in a specific order, from the least bad to the worst, and the order suggested a musical structure to me. For instance, Sloth is right in the middle, and it's a sort of zone of negativity, so it's the 'slow movement', if you like. But then you have Anger, and there's an explosion of energy which gets you out of that zone."
'Heaven and Hell' begins with a dramatic 'Prelude,' with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's blistering violin performance representing the Devil - both charming and menacing. 'Fugue 1/More Is More' (Gluttony) draws on imagery from Dante's Inferno and Noah and the Flood, and detonates in a flurry of notes: a four-part Fugue representing furious Excess.
'Angel' grapples with Lust. "The point of view is of a young guy who's horny and confused," says Joe. "It's like he has a little cartoon angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, both tempting him". The archetypal voices of the Virgin and the Whore are enacted by Suzanne Vega, with sly and sometimes bizarre innuendo ('Hey Rufus, how's the rain on the rhubarb?') - and Dawn Upshaw, whose part is based on a lovely 14th century Latin hymn to the Virgin Mary.
"I had a hard time with Avarice," says Jackson of the next piece, 'Tuzla.' "I've never really been motivated by greed or money." Reading about profiteering in war-torn Bosnia, however, and realising that war is at least a matter of greed as it is of violence, inspired Joe to write "not so much a song as a little play, with different voices commenting on the action from different viewpoints." These include voices of Conscience, Forgetfulness, Cynicism and Greed, as well as the voices of average citizens who've been "reduced to commodities ('a bar of soap, a can of oil' etc.) - they're no longer human, they ARE what they have to sell or trade."
The wry 'Passacaglia/A Bud and a Slice' ('They say Lucifer's free / What shall we do? / Don't ask me') features Brad Roberts as the voice of Sloth ("I wanted 'lugubrious,'" says Joe, "and he's Mr. Lugubrious!") Then comes the aural assault of 'Right,' featuring two stellar rock drummers, Kenny Aronoff and Dan Hickey. "That was a great session," says Jackson, "they were like gladiators in the studio, trying to outdo each other". A third drummer, a street musician by the name of Jared Crawford, was added, playing plastic buckets right in the middle of Times Square, captured on a portable tape machine at the height of the rush hour. Jackson acknowledges that 'Right' is the closest the album gets to out-and-out rock'n'roll. "Rock'n'roll has a limited emotional range, but it's really good at Anger."
'The Bridge' examines Envy from the viewpoint not of the Envier, but the Envied. "Being envied is horrible," explains Jackson, "because there's nothing you can do about it. The other person (as the lyric says) 'broke the bridge on their side'." The soaring melody is sung by Jane Siberry.
'Heaven and Hell' concludes with the astonishing 'Fugue 2/Song of Daedalus,' a piece both beautiful and terrifying. "The whole thing is a building process," Jackson says, "from serene self-confidence to monstrous egomania, with the narrator finally declaring himself to be God. Meanwhile the strings behind him get more and more twisted and dissonant."
Offering no facile resolution, however, 'Heaven and Hell' ends at a crossroads, with a reprise of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's demonic violin. "The ending is ambivalent; two chords alternating endlessly without resolving into one key or another," Jackson says. "If you see the whole work as a central character's journey, then at the end he's either damned or he's realised he's gone too far, and he has to pull back. It's your choice."
No such ambiguity lingers about the aesthetic success of 'Heaven and Hell.' Joining and surpassing the very best of Jackson's work, it establishes him more than ever as one of music's true visionaries.
'Heaven and Hell' will be released on Sony Classical in the Autumn of 1997.