The Popdose Guide to Michael Jackson, Part Four
It’s kind of hard to say anything about Michael Jackson’s adult solo career that hasn’t been said a million times before. It is worth noting that even when you strip away the many commercial superlatives awarded to those albums, there’s still an amazing amount of solid material. In retrospect, especially with the later albums, there’s probably more solid material than you remember. These albums are also interesting because they reflect the personal changes in Michael Jackson, the man, over a quarter century. The shy and good-natured young man of Off the Wall and Thriller became the bitter, paranoid man-child that made Dangerous and HIStory. Unlike most pop icons, Michael’s songwriting became more personal with each passing album. Listen to his choirboy croon slowly turn into an embittered hiss from album to album. It’s almost like watching a car crash — you want to turn away, but can’t. Between 1979 and his tragic death in June 2009, one of the greatest talents of all time disintegrated before our very eyes. You didn’t even have to follow his personal life to have seen that coming, either. It was all in the music.
Off the Wall (1979)
Off the Wall holds a very special place in my heart. It was the first album that anyone ever bought for me. It’s the only album I currently own on vinyl, cassette and CD. Obviously, it’s my all-time favorite Jackson album. More than anything, OTW proved that Michael was a master at creating a mood. He was sensual (“Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”), earnest (“Girlfriend”), exuberant (the title track), emotional (“She’s Out of My Life”), unnerved (“Working Day and Night”) and even playful (“Get on the Floor”). All that and we haven’t even mentioned the album’s best song — Stevie Wonder’s gorgeous “I Can’t Help It.” Producer Quincy Jones, songwriter Rod Temperton and a cast of musicians that included members of the Brothers Johnson and Rufus joined forces with Michael (who was still not old enough to drink legally) to create a benchmark for pop and R&B. It came at the tail end of disco’s popularity, and certainly is a product of that movement, but is too diverse and too masterful to be contained under the name of any one genre. To top it off, it doesn’t sound the least bit dated 31 years later. Thriller might be the biggest-selling album in history, but to my ears, this contains his best work.
Seven top 10 singles. Over 100 million units sold worldwide. Eight Grammy Awards. Thriller is a legendary work even if you take the music away. Actually, that might be part of the problem. The litany of record-breaking accomplishments might actually kind of obscure how good this album actually is. In some ways, Thriller was Off the Wall on steroids; in other ways, it’s a completely different animal. One thing that can’t be argued is that the ballsier moves on this album — the goofy horror movie camp of the title track, Eddie Van Halen‘s appearance on the rock anthem “Beat It,” even the (probably deliberate) ambiguous lyricism of “Human Nature” — wouldn‘t have passed commercial muster with fans (or even passed muster with Michael‘s label) if not for the success of Off the Wall. Michael proves himself a jack of all trades here: Light danceable funk? Check. A panty-dropping slow jam for the ladies? Check. An MOR duet with a Beatle? Check. The introduction of babymamadrama into popular culture? Big check. Excellent songwriting, fantastic production, great musicianship? Check, check, check. Thriller set the standard for just about every pop/soul breakthrough that’s occurred since its release — from Purple Rain and Like a Virgin to FutureSex/LoveSounds. Both a historical and cultural document and a damn good listening experience, its legacy endures: remember a week in the beginning of 2008, when two songs in the top 10 sampled songs from Thriller (Rihanna’s “Don‘t Stop the Music” and Kanye’s “Good Life”) and the album itself sold over 100,000 copies of its 25th anniversary reissue? That fact alone speaks to its influence, one that’ll last long after all the drama in Michael’s personal life has been forgotten.
Bad tried to be Thriller on steroids, and while Michael and Quincy didn’t totally fail in their mission, it’s also not as consistently enjoyable as either Thriller or Off the Wall. All the elements that made Thriller a success were there, they just weren’t executed as well. There’s also the fact that the elements that made Thriller a success just weren’t novel five years later. First single “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is a faceless MOR ballad that got the album off to a bad start, and the lame pseudo-funk of the title track suggests that the song was made to accompany the video rather than the other way around. It also suggests that Michael was now chasing trends and not setting them. However, if you remove those two tracks (and the mediocre Stevie Wonder duet “Just Good Friends”) , you wind up with a pretty solid (if not mind-blowing) record. “Man in the Mirror” remains one of Michael’s most affecting vocal performances (even if he didn’t write the song), “Liberian Girl” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” were seductive without that slightly creepy glow that Michael acquired on subsequent albums, and “Smooth Criminal” was MJ at his most aggressive. Hell, I even like “Dirty Diana.” Not many people could have successfully followed up Off the Wall and Thriller, and Bad manages to be mostly enjoyable despite the inevitable (and somewhat unfair) comparisons to those two benchmarks.
The problem with Michael Jackson’s last handful of albums is he was prone to excess. Just because a CD has 79 minutes of space doesn’t mean you have to fill it all up, know what I’m saying? If you removed a small handful of tracks from Dangerous (in particular the lazy “Black or White” and the overwrought “Heal the World”) you’d wind up with an album that’s almost as good as the pretty damn decent Bad. Bringing Teddy Riley to replace Quincy Jones as the album’s main producer was a wise decision: a lot about music had changed in the time between Bad and Dangerous, and Riley was at the forefront. The first six songs on Dangerous are impeccably sequenced for maximum dance-floor impact: you’ll find yourself short of breath just listening to the songs back to back, never mind dancing to them. The second half of the album (literally and figuratively) can’t keep up, and while Michael does a fairly good job of plagiarizing himself with “Give in to Me” (a rock ballad in the vein of “Dirty Diana” with Slash in the guest guitarist role), “Who Is It” (reminiscent of “Billie Jean”) and “Keep the Faith” (the obligatory gospel track), there’s definitely the sense of a letdown. There’s also a pronounced lack of joy in Michael’s singing and writing from this album on. Whereas on Off the Wall he sounded full of life, much of his work from Dangerous until his passing was either downcast or downright angry-sounding.
A friend of mine recently called HIStory “Michael’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On”, and I had to think about that. Coming less than two years after the first round of molestation allegations, it’s obviously a personal record. It’s also easily Michael’s darkest album — he spends most of it singing behind clenched teeth. However, it’s not as cohesive a statement as Sly’s magnum opus. For every good song (the fiery duet with sister Janet, “Scream” or the contemplative ballad “Stranger in Moscow,” or the tough “This Time Around,” on which The Notorious B.I.G. gives one of his most compact, yet most menacing verses), there’s a song like “Money” (a misguided attempt by Michael at rapping). There’s also “Little Susie,” one of Michael’s increasingly weepy (and a little creepy) orchestral ballads, the muddled mash-up of a title track, an unimaginative remake of The Beatles’ “Come Together” (which had been recorded over half a decade before it was released) and a rapping appearance by Shaquille O’ Neal, which should automatically deduct a point from your album’s final score. I can’t knock MJ for venting his spleen and making such a personal album; if I was the victim of a witch hunt, I’d be hella pissed, too. I can knock him for being musically unadventurous and forgetting to write great melodies, though. If you pick this up, I invite you to play compare and contrast with the greatest hits on Disc 1 versus the new material on Disc 2.
Technically, Blood isn’t a new Michael Jackson album — it’s a remix album that features a few previously unreleased tracks. The remixes (most of which are of the modern-day dance music variety) are all completely forgettable. The other tracks might have been unreleased, but I’m not so sure how new they were. The title track and “Superfly Sister” both sounded horribly dated even then. Certainly not material from MJ’s top shelf. The most interesting (and unsettling) track by far is “Morphine.” A hard-edged rocker about drug addiction that breaks down into a classical-accented piano bridge, it might be one of the oddest things Michael ever committed to tape. Now, it’s impossible to listen to without thinking of the way his life ended.
Nowhere near as bad as you might think based on press coverage and reviews. At this point in his career, Michael could have remade Songs in the Key of Life and critics would have shat on it. There’s a handful of really good material on here, mostly of the ballad variety. “Heaven Can Wait,” “Break of Dawn” and “Butterflies” are well-written, melodic tracks that harken back to the sound of Off the Wall, “Whatever Happens” is an excellent story-song with guitar accents by Carlos Santana, and “Don’t Walk Away” is a poppy heartbreak jam that would have been a #1 hit if the Backstreet Boys had recorded it. Even the dancier cuts have grown on me over time, like the faux-Timbaland double time groove of “Heartbreaker” and “2000 Watts,” which finds Michael singing in his natural (?) voice. Again, though — the album is WAY too long. Did Michael and his cast of producers really need to dig up a previously used verse by The Notorious B.I.G.? Was there a need to make a song like “Threatened” (think “Thriller” minus Vincent Price and plus Rod Serling)? Could someone have told him to stop trying to indulge his inner Barbra Streisand (“The Lost Children,” “Speechless,” “You Are My Life”)? The most frustrating thing about Invincible and much of Michael’s later work is that it could have been so much better if someone had just told Michael “no” every once in a while.
There are already several MJ compilations out there covering the Epic years. The best overview can be found on The Essential Michael Jackson, a three-disc set that nails down virtually all the hit singles and throws in a handful of Motown and Jacksons stuff. One disc can’t accurately summarize Michael’s career, so your next option would be the four-disc box set The Ultimate Collection. It’s a more comprehensive overview and also adds a bunch of previously unreleased material. There’s also a DVD from the Dangerous tour included. Interestingly, neither set has the song Billboard recently called Michael’s biggest hit — his Paul McCartney duet “Say Say Say.” In order to get that, you have to either grab McCartney’s Pipes of Peace (or the “3.0” version of The Essential Michael Jackson, which adds an EP’s worth of bonus hits to the earlier two-disc set).
As far as other Jackson odds and ends, there are a handful of items that collectors would love to get their grubby little hands on, including The Wiz original soundtrack, Visionary, a CD/DVD box set containing many of Michael’s hit singles on the same disc as each song’s corresponding video, and probably the rarest collector’s item of all: The E.T. Storybook. Released right before Thriller, its run was limited to half a million copies before it was pulled off the shelves. I actually wound up buying this on cassette for a dollar from some guy selling tapes in the Park Place subway station in New York about 15 years ago, and I still have it.
There’s also a lengthy list of guest appearances and productions. Michael produced or sang on songs recorded by all three of his sisters and contributed (some would say stole the song with) a vocal part on brother Jermaine’s “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’.” He also appeared on records by Stevie Wonder (1980’s “All I Do” and 1988’s “Get It”), Kenny Loggins (1979’s “Who’s Right, Who’s Wrong”) and Kenny Rogers (1981’s “Goin’ Back to Alabama”). He also produced two hits for his mentor Diana Ross: 1982’s campfest “Muscles” and 1985’s “Eaten Alive,” on which you get MJ and Barry Gibb on the same track. Falsetto overload!
Hopefully, time will be kind to Michael Jackson’s legacy. Eccentricities aside, he was truly one of a kind. Not necessarily an original, but few artists, if any, have been able to blend such an incredible number of disparate influences (James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Fred Astaire, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr.) into a cohesive whole. In turn, his influence is felt everywhere, from Ne-Yo, Usher and Chris Brown to Britney Spears and Rihanna to Diddy and Kanye West. My hope is that with this series, people will remember that there was a lot more to Michael Joseph Jackson than skin lightening and rhinoplasty.