Michael Jackson ‘Off the Wall Reissue’ – Review

7 Mar

‘Off the Wall’ is the easiest entry point for anybody new to the world of Michael Jackson (there must be a few people out there right?), and what better time to start exploring than now? This month sees the release of a new reissue, packaged with an excellent Spike Lee documentary about the making of the record.  it’s the easiest entry point because it has the least baggage. So much of MJ’s later work was fascinatingly, intrinsically linked to contextual factors. You can’t talk about ‘Thriller’ without talking about race. You can’t talk about ‘Bad’ without talking about his relationship to masculinity and femininity. You can’t talk about Dangerous without talking about his changing face. You can’t talk about ‘History’ without talking about the Child Molestation accusations. Of course all these topics, in one way or another, have roots in Michael’s adolescence and are interesting to think about in relation to ‘Off the Wall’, but it also feels unnecessary. ‘Off the Wall’ is an album where it’s entirely suitable to focus on the music and only the music. As far as possible it feels fairest to try and leave external factors out of discussion, because it is an album that is so much about the transformative power of the groove. For Michael Jackson, the groove is where it all began.

‘Off the Wall’ is a product of its time; spawned at the tail end of disco, inspired by nights out at Studio 54 and indebted to the Philly Soul sound of Gamble and Huff. But it hasn’t dated like so many records of that era have. It never resorted to cheesy proclamations or used now dated slang or colloquialisms. Producer Quincy Jones was far too experienced to pander to fads. The arrangements are sophisticated and classic – not a world away from the work he was doing decades before for Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles. It’s a timeless record.

Released in 1979, ‘Off the Wall’ was Michael’s coming of age album. Sort of. Rather than signifying confidence or freedom (it was his first solo album away from the watchful eye of his father, the controlling hand of Berry Gordy and without his brothers involvement) It connotes the ackwardness, uncertainty and anxiety that coming of age entails. Sure, In its discussions of romantic love, it’s sophisticated arrangements and its grown up grooves, it is a world a way from the childish escapism of the Jackson five years; but it’s equally far removed from the hyper-fantasy of ‘Bad’ and the stuning realism of ‘History’. It exists almost in its own world and occupies a moment rarely captured on vinyl. Michael was young, only eighteen, and since when have eighteen year olds had access to Quincy Jones, orchestras, the best session musicians in the country and a big budget to express what they’re thinking and feeling? The album finds him at one with eighteen year olds the world over; full of the confidence that leaving home brings but equally full of fear and doubt.

I’ve heard ‘Off the Wall’ frequently described as an album of liberation, a claim recently repeated in Pitchfork’s review of this reissue. But this is not something I’d necessarily agree with. To hear Michael on these tracks is to hear a human being trapped, seeking liberation, but not there yet. He’s working day and night to provide for his lover, unable to indulge in the pleasures that the nighttime can otherwise provide opportunity for. ‘Rock With You’ registers as a dream or fantasy of escapism more than anything else. ‘She’s Out of My Life’ is a rumination on regret and longing (no matter what the critics say about his love life, this is undoubtedly a soul who experienced what it was to love and loss). ‘It’s the falling in Love’ details romantic desire, but it’s a repressed desire, and no wonder – ‘Girrlfriend’ finds him in love with a girl who is already taken. This is not the sound of a man who is liberated, this is a man confined. The Prom tuxedo and smile he flaunts on the cover are symbols of maturity, of somebody who is self-assured and comfortable, but they are a charade. Beneath the surface the reality was somewhat different

Almost all the great pop songs are designed to make you cry or dance. ‘Off the Wall’ splits the difference by making songs you could dance to whilst bringing a tear to your eye. But it’s more than just a love letter to the groove – it’s instructive. When the world grinds you down, when love is denied, when fantasies are at arms length, when work pressure extinguishes romance, what else is their to do but dance, dance, dance? This is the argument contained in the rhythms of ‘Off the Wall’. It’s the drive behind the imperatives ‘BURN this disco out’, ‘GET on the floor’ ‘LIVE your life off the wall’ ‘DONT STOP till you get enough’. Michael has problems but he also has the answer. Dance! This is dance as escapism, dance as freedom, dance as release, dance as salvation. It’s perhaps in that sense that Michael begins to liberate himself.

The best songs on ‘Off the Wall’ are the ones that MJ wrote himself. What’s striking is that even at this early stage in his career he was approaching music from an outsider’s perspective. The otherness, the strangeness, of ‘Don’t Stop Till You a Get Enough’ and ‘Working Day and Night’ is astonishing. They don’t sound like songs that could have been written by anyone else. Consider his breathy falsetto; his singing isnt smooth, it’s restless. His melodies are punchy, rhythmic and indebted to James Brown. Listen to the hiccuping beat boxing at the start of ‘Workin Day and Night’. His voice is thoroughly masculine, in the tradition of soul men like Sam Cooke, its confident but seductive, sensitive and self assured – you have to be self assured to sing in such a daring falsetto. Listen out for the now iconic, but then startling, ‘owws’ that punctuate these songs sparingly. His was a voice unlike any other.

Every instrument is played with precision, mixed so that its perfectly placed in the melting pot. I’ve been listening to the album for years and there are still new details that pop out every, single, damn, time I listen to it. ‘Workin Day and Night’ in particular is full of unique percussive elements that took me years to fully digest and appreciate. The masterful mix, surely the most accomplished in the history of popular music, was completed by the tragically overlooked Bruce Sweden and of course, Quincy Jones. The arrangements are all just so, or as Q himself put it in an interview ‘not too dense, not too airy.’ Nothing else sounds this good, before or after.

It may be easy to pinpoint how ‘Off the Wall’ sounds so good but there’s a spiritual dimension to it that’s harder to get to the bottom of. Trying to explain how these sounds add up to something that moves the soul as well as the mind and body is like trying to catch water as it slips through your fingers. I suppose ‘Off the Wall’ is an album that recognises, and is about, the tremendous effect that music can have on the body and equally, the soul, and MJ practices what he preaches. The music transcends. And when all that has been explored, he also has an answer for what happens when the music stops playing; ‘And when the g-roooove is dead and gone / you know that love survives so we can rock forever’. If ever a lyric summed up Michael Jackson’s legacy, this is it. This music leaves a mark on the listener that endures beyond the process of just listening to a song. Love is what is left behind. It’s fitting that the lyric is pulled from his most joyous song, ‘Rock With You’. When all the nonsense dies down for good, when the lights in the disco die down, it’s this love that will endure.

10/10

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