It’s hard not to wonder if Michael Jackson is, creatively speaking, a spent force.
You hate to kick a guy when he’s down, but look at the facts. Jackson hasn’t released a new full-length studio album since 2001’s Invincible, and the only items to have emerged from his camp in the past half-decade have been deluxe editions of his earlier Epic albums (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous) and a collection of his number-one hits. It’s inarguable that his mind’s been occupied with other things for the past few years, but, even so, this whole “reissue, repackage, repackage” trend is mighty disappointing, particularly given that it continues unabated this Christmas season.
What Mr. Jackson is presenting for your Yuletide shopping consideration in 2004 is a four-CD (plus a bonus DVD) set bearing the ostentatious title of The Ultimate Collection. The term “ultimate” is one that virtually begs the consumer—and, naturally, the music critic as well—to argue with its premise, as very few compilations really fall into that category unless they contain the artist’s entire recorded output, like, say, the Police’s Message in a Box. Now that’s an ultimate collection.
But this? This thing doesn’t even have “Human Nature” on it!
It’s a fine line that artists tread when compiling a box set. Invariably, someone’s gonna get greedy, and it’ll occur to them that, if every single song that ought to be on the set actually makes it on there, the end result is that less people will be buying the original albums because, well, what’s the point? Everything anyone cares about is already available in the box set. Still, one would think that a set that’s declared to be “ultimate” would at least contain all of the artist’s hits.
In addition to the aforesaid omission, which defines the word “inexcusable” quite handily, “Leave Me Alone” is absent, as are “Working Day and Night” and “Earth Song”. Stretching back to the early days, “Rockin’ Robin” is missing as well. “The Girl is Mine” is here, but “Say Say Say” is not, which, given that the latter appeared on a Paul McCartney album rather than one of Jackson’s, leads one to suspect that Macca has in no way forgiven his former duet partner for buying those Beatles songs. And speaking of duets, wherefore art thou, “Scream”, the lead single from HIStory that found Michael and his sister, Janet, trading lines? Sure, it’s easy for fans to nitpick on omissions, but we’re not talking about obscurities here; these are songs that had significant chart placings.
When referencing HIStory, one must remember what a ballsy maneuver that was, as well as how offputting many casual Jackson fans found it. If you’ll recall, it involved putting out a two-disc set: one of hits, one of new songs, with neither available separately. Those who already had the hits didn’t particularly want to pay double to get the new album, and those who wanted the hits didn’t particularly want to waste their money on the new album just to get ‘em. It was a catch-22 resulting in far fewer sales than the album might ordinarily have received; in fact, if it hadn’t been for the abovementioned duet with Janet, plus “Childhood”, which won fame courtesy of Free Willy, most would be hard pressed to name any track from the record.
Why? Well, for one, not only was it no Thriller, it wasn’t even another Bad. And neither was the follow-up, Invincible. Disc 4 of the Ultimate Collection spotlights this era of material, and, wow, are most of these selections a stone-cold snooze, heavy on the schmaltz and with disgustingly few flashes of Jackson’s well-established ability to write a great dance song. Aside from “Stranger in Moscow”, “Blood on the Dance Floor”, and “You Rock My World”, skipping over this disc is a disappointingly easy task.
Scattered amongst these four discs are a handful of rarities, demos, and previously unreleased tracks. It’s great to have “Ease on Down the Road” here instead of trapped on the soundtrack to The Wiz, and diehard fans will be giddy to possess songs from “Captain Eo” as well as the elusive “Someone In The Dark,” heretofore only available on the now-out-of-print E.T. storybook album, on CD at last. Hearing Jackson’s demo of “We Are the World” shows how much the song’s lyrics evolved, but, musically, there’s little change from the final, star-studded product. The version of “P.Y.T”, however, is virtually a different song from the track that appears on Thriller; unlike the demo of “Shake Your Body”, it’s not followed by the final version, which is unfortunate.
And, then, we have the DVD: “Live in Concert in Bucharest.”
After listening to the highs and lows of Jackson’s career on the previous four discs, this DVD seems like little more than a nice little bonus, which is exactly how it begins. The concert is from the Dangerous era, generally perceived as the last truly strong album of Jackson’s career, and, appropriately, the lead song of the concert, “Jam”, is taken from it. From there, it’s into a rather ragged version of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”. Both are surrounded by tremendous visual spectacles . . . fireworks, lots of dancers, that sort of thing. Then comes the elusive “Human Nature”, during which Jackson performs a highly distracting interpretive dance of some sort. At this point, you become very conscious of the fact that Jackson is trying a little too hard to entertain, as if he’s forgotten that the songs are so strong that they don’t need production numbers to make them interesting.
But, then, it’s time for “Smooth Criminal” . . . and you have to wonder if, when Jackson went backstage to change costume and put on his fedora, someone slapped him and said, “Snap out of it!” It’s like it’s a complete different concert (though, reportedly, it isn’t). It’s the beginning of nine consecutive songs that remind you of how great a performance Jackson can give. Okay, so maybe “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is only just okay. But “She’s Out Of My Life” is as tearjerking as it ever was, the one-two punch of “I Want You Back” and “I’ll Be There” are performed with a blend of Jackson’s trademark moves and traditional Motown maneuvers from the Jackson 5 days, and “I’ll Be There,” even with the clips of his brothers and the dedication of the song to them, is affecting. From there . . . well, anyone whose ass isn’t shaking in their seat after hearing “Thriller”, “Billie Jean”, “Working Day and Night”, and “Beat It” back-to-back is paralyzed from the waist down. Things begin to wind down after that, aside from “Black and White”, which has only gotten better with age. To close with “Heal the World” followed by “Man in the Mirror” is somewhat anticlimactic, but, still, as a whole, this DVD is sufficiently strong to make up for the lesser material on Disc 4.
So what’s the final verdict on The Ultimate Collection?
Here’s the thing. Michael Jackson is loaded. I’m not his accountant, but, c’mon, even after all of his legal woes, you know he’s still got mucho dinero, if only from the songwriting royalties he continues to pull in on a regular basis. He doesn’t need the money, so there was no need to put out this collection from a financial standpoint.
No, with everything he’s gone through in his personal life in recent years, what he really needs far more than anything else is to kick-start his musical credibility. The perfect way to do that would’ve been to put together a definitive collection of all of his hits, spread out across as many discs as it takes to do the job properly . . . and I’m talking somebody-shake-the-cobwebs-off-“Farewell My Summer Love” definitive.
But, instead, Jackson has opted to produce a collection that, given its cost and its content, is likely only to appeal to his diehard fans. They’re the ones most interested in hearing the rarities and demos included within, but they’re not the ones who need to be reminded how great Michael Jackson once was and could yet be again. It’s a shame that the concert DVD won’t be available separately, because, as great as it is, it’s still not going to be enough to convince the casual fans to buy the whole package.
No, anyone else is going to be just as happy with a Jackson 5 best-of and a copy of Number Ones . . . and, sadly, who can blame them?