Michael Jackson ‘BAD 25’ – Review

18 Oct

“Well they say the sky’s the limit/and to me that’s really true.”

So sang Michael Jackson on the title track to his 1987 album ‘Bad’. But if the sky’s the limit, then surely Michael Jackson was well and truly flying when he released Thriller, unable to travel any higher? ‘Thriller’, after all, was (even at that point) the biggest selling album of all time by quite a considerable distance. But Michael Joe Jackson was simply unable to recognise that it was impossible to sell more copies than ‘Thriller’. This was a man who was born with an unnatural dose of talent. A man who had ambition beaten in to him before he could walk. For Michael Jackson the only option was to shift more units than Thriller, more units than Madonna’s last album, more units than crates of beer, more units than knives and forks, more units than the King James Bible or cough medicine.

And this was how he arrived at ‘Bad’, ‘Thriller’s highly anticipated follow-up. Michael used the term ’Bad’ in the street sense of the word as in ‘cool’, ‘hip’, ‘swinging’ ‘down’, ‘gangasta’, ‘bangin’, ‘dope’, ‘totally, like, amazing man. Unfortunately, some journalists at the time wrote the headlines before they heard the album. According to them the record was only bad in the true sense of the word – as in ‘it stinks’. Clearly though, in retrospect, it doesn’t stink. To my ears it may be the most consistently brilliant pop album ever made.

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‘Bad’ sounds of its time whilst sounding out of time. It’s very much a late 80’s sounding record, full of dated effects and cheesy synths, but it has a futuristic bent. It clearly has influences but it’s difficult to pin point what exactly (at least, without reference to the purple one). Bad is very much a product of the hit pop factory and yet it sounds strange and unique. On this album he took the reins for the first time, by writing all the material himself, by having a much greater hand in the production and by following his natural artistic instincts without diversion.

Despite this brave approach he followed the same formula that made ‘Thriller’ such a smash. Hyesterical Duet? Tick. Theatrical title track? Tick. Emotional power ballad? Tick. A hard rock number featuring a solo from one of the world’s best guitarists? Tick. It’s this combination of safety and bravery, the old and the new, the known and the unknown, that makes bad such a success.

Whilst the album borrowed a lot of tricks from its older brother, there are also a lot of differences between the two records. It seems to me that the biggest difference is how frivolous ‘Bad’ sounds in comparison to ‘Thriller’, a record that was at times so tightly wound it was in danger of bursting. On ‘Bad’ everything is much looser; the bass is lighter, Michael’s vocals are more playful and the lyrics aren’t as dark or despairing (a couple of noticeable exceptions aside). Buoyed on by the success of ‘Thriller’, Michael sounds so much more confident on ‘Bad’.

On ‘Thriller’, the delights lay in the centre of the record, that core trio of ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’. Before you arrived at these classics you had to listen to the relatively forgettable ‘Baby Be Mine’ and ‘The Girl Is Mine’. On ‘Bad’ the highlights are spread over the whole record, and surprises spring from the strangest of places. It starts quite literally with a crash bang and wallop, before that creeping baseline appears out of the chaos to signal Michael’s arrival. He sounds like he never has before; dirty, depraved and dangerous. ‘Your butt is mine’ has to be one of the best opening lines to any album. Here, however briefly, he sounds as bad as he wants us to believe he is. This is the most declarative opening to a Michael Jackson album yet.

And Michael longed for us to think he was this dangerous rebel. Originally he wanted the cover of the album to be a close up of his face distorted by a veil (you can see it in the booklet to the deluxe edition) but in the end the label decided on a more threatening photo of Michael in a leather studded jacket. They wanted to earn him some much needed man points. Just look at it for a minute though: Does Michael look threatening? Bad? Dangerous? The answer has to be no. In fact it’s impossible to look at it in 2012 with clear, fresh eyes, to see what’s really there without our knowledge of the man influencing our verdict. Look at his tanned skin for example; In the picture he is paler than he was ten years before, considerably paler. He is more white than black if anything, regardless of whether that’s down to skin bleaching or vitiligo. In some ways you look at this and see the beginning of the end. The start of the demise. Trying to be objective though, he actually looks very cool, in a very unusual way.

Michael’s hair caught on fire in 1985 and the flames demolished his Afro and Jerry Curls. In the picture his locks of curly, shiny hair make him look pretty effeminate. It’s in bizarre contrast to the masculine clothes he’s wearing. I mean, honestly, he looks like nothing else; no man or woman I’ve ever known. He looks like an alien, if an alien was trying to hang out with a street gang. This is an album cover that poses many interesting questions and shrouds yet more mystery on the music.

But back to that title track; on this song, and others (‘Speed Daemon’, ‘Smooth Criminal’) Michael adopts a new vocal style for the verse, a kind of low volume grunt that he would use more and more in the nineties. Here it’s still novel and it suits the songs, as do the groans and exclamations that pepper the tracks, but would go on to litter future albums. Shamone! He He! Awww! *grabs crotch*.

The vocabulary is delightful and unstoppable, and throughout the album Michael sounds like he’s having a ball. On ‘Speed Deamon’ he rides the bouncing bass-line like a child rides a space hopper, full of glee. ‘On Leave Me Alone’ the synth chords are elastic, Michael stretches them. They could snap but they never do. Michael delights. ‘Dirty Di-an-a’ Michael moans over a crunching, grasping guitar. It’s a type of agony Michael is describing. He is a torn man. Torn between right and wrong. It’s a song about groupie love, In contrast to the pure love that is described in the song that precedes it, the corny ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’. Michael is in a sudden dark descent as the album tumbles to an close. The song after ‘Dirty Diana’ is about Murder. Bad Michael, bad.

The first type of love we encounter on the album isn’t really love at all, it’s lust disguised as love. A song called ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. A sure fire sign of his total desire comes in the first line of the song, which finds Michael addressing a girl as ‘pretty baby’. It catches him dreaming of her dagger high heels, before he works his way up her body. ‘You Give Me fever like I’ve never, ever known’, Michael squeals, stretching the eee’s like they’re Mr Muscle toys. Michael can’t even express his lustful thoughts in complex sentences, instead he screams out in snatches. ‘The way you make me feel! You really turn me on! You knock me off of my feet! My lonely days are gone!’

The song is the first real example, and the best, of Michael expressing such direct, lustful thoughts. It feels more adolescent than the songs on ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Thriller’, but also more grown up, more honest, more in your face. On ‘Workin Day and Night’ Michael was working 24 hours a day to provide for the love of his life, here he’s only prepared to slave away from ‘9-till 5’. The night hours are for something else entirely. The drum attack that introduces the song recalls a similar introduction to ‘Rock With You’, but this opening feels manipulated and sexual. It flickers from channel to channel in a way that instantly catches the listener’s attention and instantly makes them dizzy. ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, despite being a piece of perfectly constructed, perfectly realised pop, is as Carefree as Michael had sounded since the early days of the Jackson Five, and it’s more carefree than he would ever sound again.

This is the most commercial track on the album, and perhaps the one most in thrall to Prince, the genius who had stolen some of Mike’s thunder in the five year gap between Thriller and Bad, and perhaps the biggest influence on this record’s sound. He was going to duet on the title track, which was envisioned as a kind of duel between the two biggest superstars on the planet. Prince didn’t show up. Michael won by proxy. Ding Ding!

To be honest, as consistently brilliant as this album is, nothing on here can quite compare to the best bits on ‘Off the Wall’ or ‘Thriller’. That’s saying nothing about the quality of ‘Bad’, it’s just that nothing shines quite as brightly as the sun and nothing sounds as good as ‘Billie Jean’ or ‘Don’t Stop till You Get Enough’. ‘Smooth Criminal’ probably comes closest; It reminds me of those former tracks, with the mysterious and captivating lyrics, the bassline that serves as the song’s main hook and the dramatic opening. Here the instruments are slightly synthetic and a drum machine has replaced the human back beat of ‘Billie Jean, but it still has a serious case of the funk.

‘Man in the Mirror’ is of course another classic. It wasn’t the first song Michael performed that bemoaned the state of the planet, but it’s the first one that was given pride of place as a single, the first one to strike out a convincing message and it’s become perhaps his signature anthem.

*

Not many Michael Jackson albums have an overriding theme; Off The Wall does, it’s a love letter to the art of dancing your heartbreak away; ‘History’ (and therefore the remix album ‘Blood on the Dancefloor’) is an autobiography that with stunning honesty and directness addresses the emotional tornadoes raging at Michael’s core (these are two very overlooked records that deserve a critical reappraisal). ‘Bad’ though, like ‘Thriller’, can’t be summed up in a nifty sentence. It’s essentially a collection of short stories, which is just how Michael pictured it. Working titles for Smooth Criminal and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ were ‘Al Capone’ and ‘Hot Fever’. Michael wanted to create a cinematic soundscape. ‘Bad’ appeals to all the senses.

It’s the record where Michael the man retreats from public view and Michael the enigma steps into it. It was at this point in his career where the tabloid rumours started becoming common place and for the first time, on ‘Leave Me Alone’, he addresses them. An attack on the tabloid press? This is not a song that would ever have appeared on ‘Off the Wall’ or ‘Thriller’. Nobody else could/would have made a song like this. In the 90’s Michael would make a lot more. Bad is the dividing line between Michael the artist and Michael the tabloid spectacle. Michael the man and Michael the enigma. Michael the musician and Michael the mystery.

It’s also the first time that the singles were more important than the album, and that’s because the singles ARE the album. Almost all the songs on the record were released as singles. He had five number ones from ‘Bad’, which was more than any other artist had taken from one single record. Most records tail off at the end, but all the songs on the second half of ‘Bad’ were top ten singles. Most were number ones. To all intent and purposes, ‘Bad’ is a greatest hits – a joyful greatest hits. Because of this, the minor songs (the two not released as a singles) are among the most overlooked and underrated in all of Jackson’s back catalogue.

‘Just Good Friends’ is an astonishingly unimportant duet with Stevie Wonder that takes the template of ‘The Girl is Mine’ and betters it without even trying. The interplay between the two legends is great, as is the organ sound, the harmonica solo and the bridge. Oh the bridge! It’s hard to believe a duet between two of the biggest names on the planet could sound so effortless when appearing on the most anticipated album ever, but this is fantastic!

If the album does have a low point then ‘Just Good Friends’ has been identified as being it, however it would stand out as a highlight on almost any other record. I’m not saying ‘Bad is a flawless album though. At times it’s a bit too big budget and spectacular for its own good, a bit like a Hollywood blockbuster that slightly overdoses it with the special effects just because it can. Everything sounds so smooth and polished that some of these songs sound like they were produced by robots rather than human being. ‘Bad’ doesn’t have that live, authentic, subtle dance kick that previous Jackson album had. Perhaps because of this, I’ve always preferred ‘Off the Wall’ to ‘Bad’, even though I’d probably chose both over ‘Thriller’. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) ‘Bad’s’ pop intent was fully realised and the record stands as a towering achievement of pop excess.

*

So what exactly is ‘Bad’s’ legacy? Does it have one? Well to start with, yes, ‘Bad’ does have a legacy. Lady Ga Ga gets compared to MJ all the time, and which incarnation are they comparing her with? Bad Michael of course. Just compare the covers of  their records. Listen to the ‘Alejandro’ then listen to Liberian Girl’. The album has also had an influence on dance music as well as pop, and I’ve even heard indie acts like Klaxons and CSS sing its praises. Despite living in the shadow of ‘Thriller’, ‘Bad’ has been just as influential, if not more so.

The 25th anniversary reissue is interesting because it’s making an important event out of an album that, to me at least, has always felt like the least consciously important of all Jackson’s major albums. By that I mean it is the one without an agenda. With ‘Off the Wall’ he was battling his image as a washed up child Star, his perception as a ‘has been’; he had everything to prove. On Thriller’ he was challenging the world’s assumptions about race – he was challenging what it was possible for a black artist to achieve by breaking down barriers and opening doors. On ‘Bad’ the only person he needed to prove anything to was himself. After ‘Bad’ he would spend years straining to sound relevant and meaningful. On ‘Bad’ that was a given. His albums post ‘Bad’ are about his own insecurities and anxieties, reflected out on the world. On ‘Bad’ he isn’t analysing himself or the planet, nor is he asking questions he can’t answer. He isn’t building a persona or chipping away at it. He’s simply, perhaps naively, trying to create the best pop album ever made. And he may just have succeeded, even if it took his death for the world to realise it.

(The extras that make up this reissue are an added bonus, but dvd aside, they aren’t essentiall listening. The demos offer a fascinating glimpse at his creative process, the new remixes by Nero and Afrojack are as heavy-handed and bass heavy as you’d expect, but they really aren’t as bad as they could be. The packaging, particularly for the £30 deluxe edition, is top-notch; The album comes with a colourful booklet and some sketchy but interesting liner notes. The best part about the reissue though is the live dvd. The concert was recorded for Michael’s Wembley performance on the 1988 tour and it is p.h.e.o.n.o.m.i.n.a.l. A whole essay could be written about the gig; about the way MJ dances, sings and invigorates the audience – but i’ll leave it for now. All I will say is it’s a crying shame it’s taken this long to be released.)

10/10

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