Perhaps you would find it fascinating to consider the oft-discussed awkward sexuality of Michael Jackson at age 43 in the context of the Love Songs on this disc, cut by the “King of Pop” as he grew from an 11-year-old child into a 16-year-old adolescent (1969-1975). As a window into the universe of young Michael, and as precursors to the current wave of teen pop, these 14 songs (four by the Jackson 5 and 10 by Michael as a solo artist) may be historically and sociologically noteworthy. Musically, however, they are mostly forgettable, and for the most part, I did not enjoy listening to them.
If Michael circa 2002 is seen as a child-like adult, here he is an adult-like child. A young Michael belting out fun, singsong pop sounds natural, but he is out of place tackling more than a few of these songs, particularly the world-weary Ray Charles number “A Fool for You”. For that matter, I wonder how healthy it was for a 12-year-old to sing about wanting to “be there in the morning” with his girlfriend.
Michael obviously had a great voice and a lot of energy, but they are not enough to save him from the lyrical deficiencies of these songs. “You are there, like the laughter of a child / When I just need a smile”, Michael croons on one track. “You’re all I need to get by / No one else can make me cry / The way, you do, baby”, he moans on another. The writing here is dull and formulaic, to say the least.
Many of these songs were cut around the time when Motown moved from Detroit to Los Angeles and abandoned its genius house band, the Funk Brothers. If you doubt that something was lost in the process, just compare the sterling box Hitsville U.S.A. (featuring songs recorded between 1959 and 1971) to its disappointing sequel, which covers the years 1972 to 1992.
Motown truly did lose the funk, as evidenced by the syrupy production on most of these tracks. In the early ‘70s, R&B producers began to use more orchestration, following in the footsteps of artists such as Isaac Hayes (see Hot Buttered Soul, released in 1969). Some producers, such as Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of Philadelphia International Records, succeeded terrifically, releasing a slew of singles that were funky enough to score on the R&B chart and smooth enough to cross over. Most of the tracks on this album, however, lack the tasteful string arrangements and rhythmic punch of the great soul songs of the era. Furthermore, the woodwinds featured here sound like they belong in an elevator more than on R&B radio.
Included here are one classic song (“I’ll Be There”, in a previously unreleased version with an a cappella fade) and another fairly great performance (“Got to Be There”), but most listeners with even a passing interest in the Jacksons probably already own recordings of these tunes. If you are interested in a single disc with early ‘70s solo material by Michael, you might find The Millennium Collection useful. If you are looking for a single-disc Jackson 5 compilation, you would be well served by The Ultimate Collection. Either way, leave Love Songs on the rack.
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