Forget the media-frenzied court cases. Forget babies dangling over hotel balconies. Forget the traumatizing childhood stories. Forget Neverland Ranch. Hell, forget Thriller while we’re at it. Let’s meditate on the true artistic credibility of Michael Jackson for a moment.
Sure, Thriller is the album by which millions of people will remember the gloved one, for its commercial success is unchallenged and forever will remain unchallenged. (28 million copies sold in the United States alone, over 100 million copies sold worldwide—to put it into perspective: the closest album by number of units sold comes in at 45 million copies, not even half of Thriller‘s towering sales achievement.) Rightly so, by a cultural standpoint, as its ubiquitous presence in the pop music world is well-deserved through its unrivaled ability to appeal to listeners across the board, regardless of stylistic preference, personal disposition, or genre bias.
Commendable through whatever lense you’re observing, yes, but also a bit misleading. For all of its accolades, Thriller is actually a pretty disjointed, schizophrenic collection of great singles (and a few staid, unintentionally hilarious over-the-top moments) whose only coherence comes through immaculate production value. Let’s face it: even the title track is more renowned for its spiffy music video than its actual merits as a pop single—not a particular good sign for a song’s durability.
For most intents and purposes, in a fair world, Michael Jackson’s true artistic legacy should lie within his first official solo album. Off the Wall manages the untouchable feat of being tightly constructed while simultaneously feeling loose and alive, accessible without pandering; there’s a sense of self-pleasing giddiness that is absolutely intoxicating. It’s somehow attained the unthinkable honor of remaining relevant and fresh 30 years after its release date, while the dance-pop and disco that both preceded it and followed in its wake bear the embarrassing, bloated mark of its time period all too visibly. It neatly summarizes all that was right in an era of over-marketing (no small praise considering how much wrong plagued it) while remaining engaging during an era completely removed from its origin, even inviting revisionism that’s more flattering to its bouncy brand of overeager pop than it was at its inception. It exists out of time—a truly remarkable accomplishment for a pop record, especially one created during an age of such fluctuation and inconsistency. As far as this writer is concerned, it’s terribly tragic that more attention isn’t paid to this dance masterwork in favor of its far more financially successful follow-up. This was the sound of Michael Jackson at his peak.
Let’s explore that. The pure sound of the record is (pardon my pun) thrilling. Prickly disco-funk guitars stab here, creamy horn sections swoop in and out there, swirling keyboards and strings flutter around Michael’s angelic voice like swabs of cotton—yet the central focus is never dictated away from the sheer excitement conjured up here. We’re never yanked around and forced to assemble the songs’ impact for ourselves; its cumulative effect is so effortless that it’s easy to overlook what a goddamn musical visionary Michael was. He blends the disparate strands of smooth soul, jaunty dance-pop, flinty disco, and thumping funk to the point that they’re virtually inseparable. Threads sneak out here and loose ends flap in the breeze there, but they’re more in line with serving as reference points and segues than actually revealing weaknesses in song structure. This is an album so wholly realized in its style and aesthetic that it feels like a continuous loop, infinitely playing in addendum with some blissed out, never-ending dance floor.
Michael’s most lauded talent was, of course, that voice: an endlessly colorful palette of expressive tones and deliveries that touch on everything from heartbreak to euphoria, from fear to unbridled enthusiasm. Here, he exerts the ability to make your senses tingle with a mere hiccup, a groan, a grunt, suggesting sexuality while never succumbing to its fatal solipsism. Where later in his career he may have pushed the limits to capture an increasing paranoia or a utopia that always seemed just out of reach, on Off the Wall he’s subtle and nuanced, barrier-breaking without ever being acrobatic.
Jackson’s command of the upper-registry in regards to emotional resonance is unmatched (okay, maybe Smokey Robinson), and his versatility as a pure singer places him in a pantheon occupied by only a handful of his contemporaries, if that. Few talents are capable of not only reaching into every nook and cranny of the human psyche in such an affecting way, but controlling a total, solid presence of spirit in such an absorbing, emotionally enriching fashion. Otis Redding owned it with heartache and melancholy; Aretha Franklin owned it with self-empowerment; Dusty Springfield owned it with sultry seduction; Sam Cooke owned it with swooning romanticism—Michael Jackson owned it all.
With all of the acclaim Michael won through his peerless vocal superiority—which is clearly well-deserved—it’s had the sad, unfortunate side effect of obscuring his myriad of other musical talents. It’s no coincidence that the two strongest songs on Off the Wall bear MJ’s sole songwriting credit, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Working Day and Night”. Certainly, his execution on this remarkable work wasn’t a single-handed effort, with bountiful help from collaborators as far-reaching as Quincy Jones and Paul McCartney in tow, but make no mistake: this is Michael’s vision. The sheer exuberance on display here is owned and embodied through every vocal quirk, through every expression of surging optimism, through the sonically conveyed belief that life could really be that much more beautiful if we just let our problems dissipate and danced it all away.
Such a difficult task could never have been acheived without an effective cycle of song arrangements, which is where the collaborators come in. Don’t let that discount Michael’s input though. It’s well-documented, the sweat and hard work put into this record; he was meticulous in tailoring each moment to suit the final depiction of how he felt this album needed to be heard. He was utterly consumed by it, and the fact that that feeling is so tangible in the final mix is why this work is so enthralling, no matter how many times we’ve spun it. Just try not to lose it in a moment of heat and passion when the horn section splashes two-thirds of the way through the aforementioned “Working Day and Night”, while the spunky guitar breakdown punctuates our desire to just escape life’s troubles and lose control. If that isn’t an artistic statement of the highest degree, I’ll be damned if I know what is.
Let’s not give shaft to how much musical perception is required for not-so-simply choosing an array of songs to communicate a specific thought, idea or emotion. Song selection is the lost art among interpreters, and one tiny misstep can throw your original inspiration into a muddled sea of false impressions and erroneous self-projection. The artistic vision to see it all through to its finish, in a deliberate but natural organization of linear song progression, is a make-or-break facet of record-making. The way the smooth ‘n’ stutter pop of “Girlfriend” bleeds effortlessly into the syrupy “She’s Out of My Life” attains a momentum that could otherwise be killed through poor song selection and organization.
It’s difficult to muster up a realization of just how much assertiveness is required to follow through on your original vision of conveying an artistic expression, but the fact that Off the Wall not only succeeds but exceeds expectations is truly befitting its neglected status as a masterwork of a just-blooming-yet-blindingly-gifted musical visionary. Michael made splendid on the promise of his potential as soon as he acquired the artistic control he needed to fulfill it, and it’s to our, the listener’s, advantage that it’s so winningly performed and produced.
Even the pitfalls of typically mannered balladry are evaded here through Jackson’s tastefulness, likable candor, and irresistible emotional simplicity. By basking unashamed in his affection for unadulterated schmaltz, any trace of self-consciousness is erased through the lively animation of Michael’s delivery. Later on in his career, he’d fall victim to the hazards of stilted and studied romanticism, making his ballads’ saccharine sublimity seem hackneyed and overwrought, but at this point he was gliding by on his willful naiveté. It’s hard to imagine anything but a weepy empathy being elicited from us even at his most maudlin here, which is a lesson the current crop of falsetto-slingin’ crooners can learn from. It’s somehow appropriate that, years later, when his disciples were gaining far more airtime than he was, Michael was still able to one-up them at their own game with the glossy, graceless, yet undeniably charming “You Rock My World”.
Which is what makes MJ’s achievements in light of his passing so much more poignant, touching but ultimately sad. While his students never capitalized successfully on the lessons Off the Wall was laying out for them, we’ll never see the master truly shine once more and illustrate how it’s properly done: with a flare for the theatrical, but always grounded in palpable feeling and a sense of the childlike whimsicality that seemed to flow in such a facile grace from Michael’s celestial falsetto.
Even 100 years from now, we’ll still be left with this multi-dimensional work of art that speaks to the human heart, mind, soul and body, and that’s worth celebrating, even if a twinge of melancholy can’t help but mire it henceforth. So when Michael sighs “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry”, the truth is, now neither do we.
// Notes from the Road
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