Michael Jackson died, and he was officially inducted into sainthood. All the previous suspicions regarding his child molestation charges were considered hogwash. Talk of his lost grip on reality also subsided—you musn’t speak ill of the dead, even if it is true. This reviewer is going to, through caution to the mainstream popular opinion, approach Michael Jackson’s new posthumous album with a critical eye that some have intentionally blinded towards him and his music. There are however, some caveats to be made: 1) This album is clearly comprised of material that Michael Jackson himself was probably not ready to have released to the mainstream public; 2) There are production choices made that might not necessarily reflect how Michael would have approached the album. Having said that, though, there is still a distinct Michael Jackson-ness that runs through the entire length of the album, and this is both its demise and what occasionally saves it.
The album starts with the horribly clichéd “Hold My Hand”, an Akon track thinly disguised as a Michael Jackson song—with cheese factor amplified by the horrible video featuring ridiculously affected vignettes. It isn’t until the second track, “Hollywood Tonight”, that the conventional ‘90s Michael Jackson (that was tired even back in the ‘90s) comes into focus, with overwrought orchestral swells segueing into his “chkas” beatboxing, reminiscent of “Jam” from 1991’s Dangerous. The track also contains some of the most glaring vocal modifications this side of pop music, bringing to light the mediocrity that was Michael Jackson between the early ‘90s to his death.
I do not want to dispute that the man was one of the best performers of our generation—I refuse to give him that ultimate title of “best performer ever” as there is no objective criteria that could award any one performer with such a title. However, in terms of his music, his career saw many wonderful heights of complete brilliance. Unexpectedly, and quite quickly, this deteriorated into blatant arrogance and subsequent mediocrity in the last two decades of his life. It’s pretty safe to say Bad was the man’s last brilliant album. Every album that followed had more than a number of embarrassing tunes, effectively managing to dethrone Jackson of his self-proclaimed “King of Pop” status, no matter how hard he (and his minions) tried to cram that moniker down the public’s collective throat. This, of course, does not imply that there weren’t some brilliant moments in Dangerous (which was more great then bad), HIStory, or Invincible, but rather that the great songs never even came close to the brilliance of earlier mega-hits, and the bad songs were just so completely bad that they were occasionally unforgivable—anyone remember “Childhood”? Michael from 2010 exemplifies Jackson’s later work, and as such, suffers from stagnant writing and production techniques that caused his career to suffer so heavily.
One of the most insufferable thematic elements of Michael Jackson’s later songwriting is his need to fight back with unexamined arrogance, evidenced throughout his post-Dangerous career. Songs like “Scream”, “They Don’t Care About Us”, “Unbreakable”, and “Tabloid Junkie” desperately tried to pounce back at the overwhelming accusations that surrounded his controversial lifestyle. The songs also lacked any true introspection, humility, or grace that would have probably better endeared him to the public. Michael continues this trend of arrogance with tracks like “Breaking News”, and “Monster”—even the album cover features multiple Michaels styled throughout his career, all surrounding a “new” Jackson, ridiculously presented in royalty garb. crowned in such a way as to suggest a halo. Ironically, the tracks (and the images) are easier to digest now that he’s gone, almost as if there is now adequate space to reflect upon this troubled human being. Instead of reacting with incredulousness at his removal from normality, we can accept that he suffered through a life where he saw the complete adoration from the general public stripped away and turned into condemnation and then vilification—regardless of whether he was at fault or not. Also, by being constantly surrounded by overpaid sycophants that refused to help Jackson face the reality of his situation, what other outcome could we have expected? These tracks now provoke a level of pity for a man so far removed from society and reality. This does not, however, imply that they are any good—ultimately, it just guarantees they are sad. Teddy Riley’s insistence on rhythmic overdubs overshadows any potentially standout melodic structures that the songs could have possessed in more graceful hands.
It has been reported that Michael recorded over 30 tracks for his 1982 album Thriller before carefully selecting the final nine that made that album so great—both in the caliber of the songs chosen and in how each brilliantly complimented the next. 2010’s Michael, although not selected by Jackson himself, has a slightly similar flow to that of Thriller, which makes it a more digestible album then previous bloated efforts. Instead of cramming in an excess of tunes, the producers decided on a select few, no doubt in order to capitalize on future releases. Regardless, keeping the album at a scant ten tracks helps in not overloading the listener, thereby avoiding many of the problems that plague Jackson’s later work. It makes the bad tracks (“Breaking News”,“Hollywood Tonight”) much more manageable, nicely complimented by some rather well-done tunes such as “Best of Joy” and “Behind the Mask”, which offer more variety then the impossibly monotonous Invincible.
The saddest part about Michael is how it reminds us that the best of Michael Jackson’s music is already out there. There are no hidden mega-gems that even come close to paralleling the brilliance that was “Thriller”, “Billie Jean”, or even “Man in the Mirror”. The best we can hope for is more subtle musical greatness that shone through on tracks like “Stranger in Moscow”, “Morphine” and “Who Is It”. These moments are fleeting on Michael, but there are a few, particularly the Tricky-produced “Keep Your Head Up”, with its surprisingly selfless but earnest story of a woman struggling to survive. Michael Jackson’s career might have plummeted in the last 20 years, but in death, his cultural significance and nostalgia offer enough so that new music is greeted with hushed reverence. It’s enough reason to continue listening, instead of simply dismissing.
// Notes from the Road
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