“I’m tired of being the victim of shame, you’re throwing me in a class with a bad name, I can’t believe this is the land from which I came”
—Michael Jackson, “They Don’t Care About Us” (1995)
“You can’t believe it, you can’t conceive it, and you can’t touch me, ‘cause I’m untouchable, and I know you hate it, and you can’t take it, you’ll never break me, ‘cause I’m unbreakable”
—Michael Jackson, “Unbreakable” (2001)
Anyone who took in the message delivered by Michael Jackson on his 1995 HIStory album will know: speaking ill of the man has become redundant. He already knows what you think of him. And besides, as he screamed through songs like “D.S.”, “Money”, “This Time Around” and, especially, “They Don’t Care About Us”, he doesn’t give a shit. Face it, Michael Jackson is just not the man you think he is. Still not convinced? Go back and listen to that album, hear Michael Jackson bleed, tearing at himself in disgusted wonder at how easily a good man’s name can be dragged through hell, accused without foundation. And listen to him hate you, knowing inside that your ridicule is undeserved. Thankfully, six years later, with Invincible, a new man emerges, his pride tested and restored. An undefeated man. Resurrected. Ready to rock the world (or just those who believe in him) again.
For his new album, Jackson has brought in the cream of the (new) crop of producers including Rodney Jerkins (Destiny’s Child) to assist him in building an up-to-date and musically relevant record. Jerkins has said that he and his colleagues tried to bring Jackson into the new millennium teaching him words appropriate to today’s youth (ie. the use of the word “banging” in “You Rock My World”) and to cut down on his trademark “oohs” and “ahhs” (why?). This influence is apparent in many of the tracks on Invincible, which isn’t to say that the songs co-written by Jerkins, LaShawn Daniels, Dr Freeze, Norman Gregg and Fred Jerkins III aren’t good—they’re great. It’s just that when you’ve had a career like Jackson’s, a lot is expected of any new piece of work and these fellas haven’t swayed too much from Top 40 norms. That’s been left up to Jackson’s perennial producers, Bruce Swedien and Teddy Riley, who look to be assisting him in changing those norms rather that reinforcing them.
As a so-called “comeback”, Invincible needed not to update Jackson for the new millennium but to do for him what Dangerous did at the start of the 1990s—to seal his place in the music world as a daring pioneer unafraid to challenge current chart pap. Invincible does and doesn’t do this, but the mix is such that the saccharine (“You Are My Life” and “Heaven Can Wait”) is outweighed by the brilliant (“Whatever Happens” and “The Lost Children”), creating a record that is quite relevant while at the same time being experimental and fresh.
Prior to 1991, Jackson’s music, though striking, was still fairly pop-based with mostly luminous vocals sticking to the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus concept. Dangerous, however, saw Jackson change his approach, including in his work rap interludes, long guitar solos, more sex, screamed verses, newsreel clips, sound effects such as breaking glass and a lot more vocal trickery on songs such as “Who Is It?” This theme flowed over onto the HIStory album and gave Jackson a new style all his own—a no-musical-holds-barred pattern of throwing everything into the mix and waiting to see what floats to the surface. The theme, again, is evident on Invincible.
The opener, “Unbreakable”, begins where HIStory left off, with Jackson reminding the critical public of his strength and unshakable belief in himself and his future. The song is without doubt the album’s standout with a ferocious melodic hook that doesn’t stop at all throughout the song. Broken in the middle with a sample from The Notorious BIG’s “I Can’t Stop the Reign”, “Unbreakable” is the comeback single Michael Jackson should have allowed himself.
“Heartbreaker” and the album’s title track are also great songs both using ultra-groovy and super-catchy choruses. “You Rock My World” is also a lot of fun, if a little too predictable and a horrible choice for a first single with so many other, better selections available. These opening songs feature Jackson singing to the woman he loves about proving that love, winning her love, or simply waxing on about the depth of his adoration. Again the hip influence is apparent; it seems that Jackson and about five young co-writers have concentrated on producing songs worthy of little more than their place in dance clubs.
Jerkins also said the “joints” he worked on are assured to get people moving. At times this influence causes some songs to sound forced and very un-Mike-like. On “Break of Dawn”, for example, Jackson sings about wanting the night to never end so he can continue a marathon “sweet” love-making session with his lady of choice. When singing about sex in the past, Jackson has always been subtle, managing to sing some of the most deliciously erotic lines without ever actually letting on as to just what he’s up to. Past hits like “Give in to Me”, “Dirty Diana” and “Rock with You” document Jackson’s ability to be sexual without being explicit, a much greater (and far more enticing) feat.
This is why the somewhat buried tracks on Invincible are such a pleasure—they’re different. Jackson’s Dangerous collaborator Teddy Riley proves with just two songs that he’s a hundred times the composer the young hipsters flooding most of this album are. While the jivin’ beats of the tracks by Jerkins et al. are funky and fun, it’s the Riley-influenced efforts such as “Whatever Happens” and “Don’t Walk Away” that are the most intriguing and that allow Jackson greater room to experiment lyrically, vocally and instrumentally. Riley’s use of guitars (so gorgeous on Dangerous‘s “Jam”, “Who Is It?” and “Why You Wanna Trip on Me?”) gives Jackson a matured sound and makes these songs more than just potential dance-chart toppers.
Riley’s songs on Invincible also see Jackson play with his voice—adding a touch of country swing to “Don’t Walk Away”, reinventing the intensity and emotion of “Man in the Mirror” with a Latin twist on “Whatever Happens” and sounding almost unrecognizable on “2000 Watts”.
The finest moment of the album, however, is the Jackson/Jerkins collaboration, “Threatened”. This is almost a sequel to “Thriller”, which immortalized the Sunday afternoon creature feature and Jackson’s obvious love of the horror genre. “Threatened” uses the musings of Rod Serling throughout—“I forgot to introduce you to the monster”, he says as Jackson begins his, well, threatening—taking over from “Thriller”‘s Vincent Price. It also uses “Thriller”‘s slamming doors, opening graves and zombie voices, layered underneath a terrific song and perfect climax to the album. Jackson warns the unsuspecting that they should feel threatened by him, that he’s the beast underneath their beds and that he’s watching. Jackson even goes so far as to call himself “the living dead” and warn that “when you’re trapped in the halls, my face is the walls” again proving, as he did so well on HIStory that he’s well aware of his public image, only this time he shows he has a gloriously warped (and fun) sense of humor about it.
Michael Jackson’s last few years have torn from him some incredible material, poignant and thrilling in its often painful message reinforcing the theory that genius often comes out of despair. Jackson, however, seems close to leaving his dark days behind, if only within his music (with the exception of “Unbreakable” and “Privacy”). On Invincible he goes back to what he does best—breaking down musical barriers while fighting to get the girl. Be she or be she not “banging”.
// Notes from the Road
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