Michael Jackson ‘Xscape’ – Review

20 May

Michael Jackson has just made 2014’s best pop album from beyond the grave. Wonders never cease when it comes to the King of Pop, Rock and Soul. This is, ironically, an album fizzing with life; rubbish title aside, Xscape is a surprisingly considered album from top to bottom, and one that makes an embarrassment of the posthumous albums we’re use to from our deceased pop stars. Of course it poses a lot of interesting questions that will keep fans and cynics debating for a long time; is this the album Michael would actually have made? Would he have wanted this released? Does that actually matter? The fact is Michael Jackson worked very closely with producers, he was a perfectionist but at the same time he handed a lot of responsibility to the people he worked with – I don’t think this is a world away from what a new Michael Jackson would have, or should have sounded like in 2014. It certainly sounds a lot more current and lively than ‘Invincible’ did in 2002.

The powers that be have tried to claw back some kind of credibility and cohesion from 2010’s hit and miss ‘Michael’. By hiring Timbaland to oversee and curate this impressively concise collection of 8 songs they have hit a home run. It’s been years since Jackson worked with a single producer, and although these songs were originally worked on with other names, Timbaland has stamped his distinctive production style all over the album. It works for the same reason Justin Timberlake’s impressive ‘20/20 Experience’ (also a Timbaland joint) worked last year. It is a modern sounding album with retro flourishes. It’s sonically ambitious in its scale and scope yet it’s poppy and full of hooks. You can’t help dreaming about what Jackson might have achieved in life if he had worked with Tim and not Will I Am, or Justin Timberlake instead of Akon.

We don’t know a huge amount about Michael Jackson’s working relationship with his producers, as a lot of that process is clouded with mystique. Jackson’s producers are generous with their praise of his contribution to the creative process, often attributing unexpected production or arrangement ideas to the man himself. Jackson, like many creative geniuses, had a rather limited critical vocabulary, and he was unable or unwilling to articulate what exactly it was that he did in the studio. When asked, he would attribute most things to God and often seemed unable to remember the finer details of who did what and how. It seems It was a game of give and take between him and his producers. He would start with an idea that he would hum and beatbox; often he would arrange entire tracks in this way, starting with the rhythm, bass, then piano, guitar and even string and horns. The producers would then translate this into something real, often over the course of many years and at great expense.

As time wore on there is little doubt that Jackson became disinterested in the recording process and he handed over more and more responsibility to an increasingly unwise rota of producers. His decision making became blurred, his songs were left unfinished and half baked. At the risk of saying anything unpopular Jackson decided it was best to say nothing at all. In his world this meant extreme procrastination – that’s why we’ve ended up with ‘Xscape’, an album that takes some of his half baked, unfinished ideas and attempts to do something meaningful with them.

L.A Reid’s (head of Epic records and this album’s executive producer) logic is that he chose songs Jackson had demoed dozens of times – that’s how, Reid reasons, you know Jackson liked the song. That logic seems flawed to the extreme; after all, if Michael really loved the songs why would he leave them on the cutting room floor in various states of undress? Nonetheless, these 8 songs are all reasonably strong, some of them would be considered single material, let alone album material, in a lesser artist’s hands. Certainly these tracks are better than the ones that featured on 2010’s first posthumous collection ‘Michael’, and the production is more up to date.

Jackson’s primary influence in later life was classic romantic poetry and great works of art. He really wasn’t as engaged in pop culture as some people might assume. This is what influenced the broad stroke optimism and despair that washed over songs like Heal the World and Earth Song in equal measure. Jackson’s heroes were ambitious, doomed and out of sync with the times. So was he. Jackson was increasingly happy to make grand, unusual artistic statements at the expense of dance songs. So epics like ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ and ‘Xscape’ which deal with child abuse, alienation and persecution are in that tradition. By Pop’s modern low standards these songs are strange, difficult, even bizarre but Wordsworth dealt with exactly the same topics. Sure, Michael can’t articulate his views in a way that will avoid scorn and ridicule from closed-minded critics, but then Wordsworth couldn’t sing or dance or arrange music. When digesting ‘Xscape’, and pop music in general, you have to remember that lyrics are part of a bigger picture. I chose to look past the shortcomings and admire the ambition and imagination of these offerings.

Still, without doubt Michael Jackson was at his most potent when he sang about supposedly straightforward things like love and loss (preferably to the sound of cowbells, horns and a Disco beat). ‘Love Never Felt So Good’, presented here in three forms, is the breeziest Michael Jackson song recorded since the Thriller Days. ‘Off the Wall’ fans no doubt have Daft Punk to thank for the lovely throwback production. There is no agenda here, no grand ambition or important statement. It’s a love song that expresses unadulterated joy in a simple and enthusiastic way. His voice is stunning and it glides all over the silky strings and just-so beat. It’s a refreshingly modest joy to behold. ‘Chicago’ and ‘Loving You’ are equally relaxed and enjoyable and both feature production that sounds of our time and of his time as well.

I’ve seen some reviews that take issue with Michael’s later material for being too bitter and angry (read just about any review of ‘Xscape and you’ll find these accusations in one form or another). This is offensive. These people are assuming that a pop star in Michael Jackson’s position had no right to express his anger, as if this emotion is reserved for the young, moody and indie. Michael Jackson’s anger was valid and (mostly) well expressed. It never overwhelmed or defined his albums, and it doesn’t here. Rather it serves to highlight just what a perilous and sad situation Michael found himself in as the 20th century moved in to the 21st century. These songs make me feel empathetic and I can relate to his pain. Likewise some people have a problem with a song like ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ because of it’s controvesial content. The song condemns child abuse. Perhaps these people have forgotten that Michael Jackson was acquitted of all Child Molestation charges put against him by a jury of his peers. If anyone has the right to sing about this subject it’s him. Can you imagine Justin Beiber or One Direction addressing a subject like this? Of course you can’t. Pop stars lack bravery but Michael Jackson never did.

The later songs on the album, the ones recorded in the late 90’s, can’t match the 80’s material.That once breezy voice does lose some of it’s charm as it becomes noticeably angrier and more confident – His vocal performance on ‘Xscape’ is full of ticks, whoops and exclamations, that draw attention away from the melody. The title track is the one mis-step on the album, and unsurprisingly it is the most recent composition on here. Rodney Jerkins isn’t a hack, but he’s certainly no match for Michael Jackson’s talent. It reminds you that ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ is a fantasy; a fantasy of what a Michael Jackson song may have sounded like in 2014. It’s an old melody glued to a contemporary arrangement and it wouldn’t exist if Michael Jackson were still alive. If Michael Jackson was still alive we would have more songs like ‘Xscape’ and less like ‘Love Never Felt so Good.’ But then that’s what this album is, a fantasy. And that’s what Michael Jackson was, in both his art and his life, a fantasy. ‘Xscape’ is an un-real album from an un-real artist for un-real times. I can’t think of a more perfect vehicle for our own fantasies and projections about the King of Pop. Take from ‘Xscape’ whatever you want but accept it for what it is; another out of sync move from an out-of sync genius, still surprising us from another realm.

8/10

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