In time travel movies, the big difficulty the characters are always concerned about is the paradox. Don’t do this, this or that or else you’ll bring on a paradox, it’ll destroy time-space and we’ll all cease to exist, etc. and so on. There are paradoxes in reality too, impossible to reconcile so easily as “don’t cross your mother and father in the 1950’s.”
Try this one: the first posthumous collection from Michael Jackson, titled Michael without a hint of irony or levity, would have brought back his career based on the music, but first he had to die.
I wasn’t a fan of Invincible, his last studio album in life. I thought it was leaden and disjointed. It did not have a single song on it that grabbed me and, consequently, I found it easily forgettable. Yet at that time, his controversies and scandals were still front-and-center and yes, no matter how much someone wants to deny that has an effect on the decision-making process, it certainly does. In some twisted way, his death made it okay to enjoy Michael Jackson’s music again. If the events alleged did occur, they’re still inexcusable. If they did not, then he really was a victim of his fame. In either case, he’s not here to defend himself or do the time, and so focus shifts back to the work. Had these songs appeared while he lived, they would still fall into that gray region where doubt plugs the ear, it would have been likely viewed another comeback bid and would have likely languished on racks like Invincible. This newfound paradox allows the album to be judged in a more favorable light.
“Favorable” is key here. Like I said earlier, this album would have saved his career if it was only a question of music to be asked, but it is not without glaring inconsistencies. The first is that I still can’t understand why I’m hearing Michael Jackson in auto-tune. “Hold My Hand,” a duet with Akon, is a main offender and so is that annoying declaration up front of “Akon and M.J., yeah!” Accepting these, the song is actually quite effective, filled with synth-driven string swells and choir backups by the end, in true Jackson bombast.
It might just be that the auto-tune was needed to touch up an unfinished vocal line, but that’s a bit too generous. It seems more a nod to the sound of the times, and a glaring truth that, while Jackson doesn’t need auto-tune, Akon does. He can shout out his allegiance all he wants, but that will never make him an equal.
“Hollywood Tonight” has a fat, “Bad”-like groove and is a contender for my favorite song of the set. Teddy Riley and Neff-U bring dance energy to the fore without stifling the Jackson trademarks. Even though I can’t really stand 50 Cent, “Monster,” featuring a late-song rap and another lyric created with Jackson on the defensive against paparazzi and varied parasites, works on levels most of his other songs of the type don’t, including this album’s terribly self-defensive “Breaking News.” “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day” is the requisite rock track of the album featuring Lenny Kravitz, and of the songs here, this feels strangely the most natural. I’ve always believed Kravitz’ vocal harmonies had Jackson 5 D.N.A. in it, and this track proves it, plus his guitar solo is smile-inducing.
The problem with the album is that it is so consciously calculated. There’s the big rocker, the bid for hip-hop agreement, the huge inspirational track with the gospel tinge (“Keep Your Head Up” produced by Tricky) and the soft pop entry of “(I Like) The Way You Love Me,” all presented with that need to remind the listener of Thriller‘s multi-faceted musicality. However, nothing here sounds as effortless as Thriller did. This album is programmed from stem-to-stern, down to the incredibly creepy album cover featuring a cold-eyed portrait of Jackson being coronated King of Pop in death.
And if you strip away the offenses, you find a batch of really good tunes, and therein lies the rub. This album will attain an air of greatness it doesn’t deserve because Jackson is gone, and the stigma of being a fan of his music has eased. This is not Thriller and it’s hard to say much could challenge that, not only because of that album’s contents but because of the cultural reinforcement of it being “something” – the inherent merits are amplified by years of social adoration. Yet Michael is easily the most ‘fun’ of Jackson’s output of recent times and sits so much more comfortably next to Bad and Dangerous than HIStory or Invincible does.
The question hangs in the air though, and will remain there. The largest portion of Michael will make the fans very happy, and has the ability to catch those who are less than loyalist off guard, but would it be so if he was still alive? The best advice would be, just enjoy the music. That’s what it’s supposed to really be about, right?
Michael is available from Amazon.com.