Tag Archives: Michael Jackson

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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Black Keys ‘Turn Blue’ – Review

29 May

The Black Keys are cowards. Over the past month they’ve attacked a clearly troubled teenager (Justin Bieber), an American hero (Jack White) and a dead man (Michael Jackson). These attacks were angry, judgmental and puzzling. Noel and Liam Gallagher they aint. It left me wondering why the nasty duo don’t pick on people their own size. The simple answer, based on new album ‘Turn Blue’, is that they simply don’t have the guts because they haven’t got the songs. They have trouble talking the talk and on this evidence they’re not close to walking the walk – in fact they aren’t even fit to lick Jack White’s desert boots.

‘Turn Blue’ is a hilariously inept, monolithic record beamed straight from a distant, unfriendly age where guitars, drums and organs were deemed to be the only authentic instruments and women were called things like ‘Darlin’. It’s a ‘ROCK’ album in the sense that it sounds hard, uncompromising and grey – like a rock. It’s riddled with awkward end rhymes and archaic phrasing (“why you always wanna love the ones who hurt yah?”) set to hollow riffs and snoozy rhythms. It’s obstinately their ‘heart and soul’ record, yet there is no heart and little soul. Dan Auerbach tries to show a sensitive side yet comes over as out of touch and emotionally unsophisticated. His summary of his sorry love life? “Nobody want to protect yah / They only want to forget yah.”

Black Keys have been slugging it out for over a decade and their best work came when they were a modest support band living in the shadows. They got pushed in to the limelight because of a lack of other options – by 2010 Black Keys were one of the few acts making accessible riff rock, and so, Suddenly, and without much rhyme or reason, the powers that be decided they would become massive. 2011’s ‘El Camino’ was their poppiest record yet, and the most fun, but it still left me feeling a bit cold. ‘El Camino’, like their previous albums, was all stone carved riffs and no heart. I reasoned that if Black Keys were going to earn their plaudits they would need to insert some real, hard earned emotion in to their act.

But embracing emotion shouldn’t mean ditching fun altogether – especially when your entire sound and image until this point is based around ‘fun.’ ‘Turn Blue’ chronicles singer Dan Auerbach’s “messy divorce” (which divorce isn’t messy?) and when he wrote it he was clearly still in the drunk ‘woe is me’ phase of the break-up. Like Coldplay, Black Keys have followed their most upbeat album with their saddest. Unlike Coldplay, that’s all Black Keys have made; a sad, sad, sad album. It’s all build up and no release. All tears and no joy. All negativity and no optimism. It’s a sad, sad, sad album. Which is a real bummer.

As on ‘El Camino’, the record is produced by Danger Mouse, and it’s no better for it. As on the Broken Bells album earlier this year (Danger Mouse is a member of that group) ‘Turn Blue’ has a claustrophobic sound. Cinematic strings circle the other instruments, keeping them penned in to a ring. The bass is notable in the mix but sounds muddy and distracting. The swirling, almost psychedelic sound is the sonic equivalent of car sickness. Any semblance of dynamism, particularly with the riffs, gets lost in the dizziness. ’10 Lovers’ stands out from the crowd – the drums have a bit of bite and the synth rises to the surface and moves away from the sludge. Here they sound closer to former support act Arctic Monkeys on last Year’s triumphant ‘A.M’. It’s a shame more songs don’t have the same energy and focus.

‘Turn Blue’ is simply too plodding, too lethargic and too moody to be enjoyable. It doesn’t surprise me when I read that the band deliberately tried not to write singles. If that was their aim then they succeeded – there is nothing here that comes close to matching ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ or ‘Lonely Boy.’ In most countries Michael Jackson, half a decade dead and buried, beat Black Keys to the number one spot and that also doesn’t surprise me. ‘Turn Blue’ rather than MJ’s ‘Xscape’ is the album that sounds like it was made from beyond the grave. Jack White and Justin Bieber shouldn’t worry either – Black Keys have well and truly lost this battle and they better #belieb that.

2.5/10

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

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.

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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

Michael Jackson ‘Michael’ – Review

7 Jan

The first words that you hear on ‘Micheal’ are ‘Akon and MJ’ and they aren’t sung by Michael Jackson. Akon is a nobody, an also-ran American R&B artist who has released (As far as I can remember) only one decent single in his career. ‘Michael’ is meant to be a celebration of the King of pop, so why oh why does it open with a vanity track predominantly sung by a complete and utter tool? This dumb move just about sums up the way ‘Michael’ has been treated by the record label; THEY obviously thought it was a genius idea to open with this middle of the road ballad, THEY obviously thought Akon is the kind of cutting edge artist Michael was right to work with – in other words THEY are clueless.

But then so was Michael Jackson – as clueless in the last 25 years of his life as he was unnaturally fully aware in the first 25. In the mysterious period between ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ the old (black) Michael disappeared and a new (white) Michael took his place, this Michael still had more than his fair share of genius moments but they came when he stopped thinking, when he let his natural talents shine through his voice and feet. When he DID think, he over thought and his grip on reality was so loose that he ended up making some terrible decisions. The results of which continue to frustrate, captivate, annoy and delight on ‘Michael’, a collection of songs he was working on in the years before his death.

Like much of Michael’s latter work, this album is always a fascinating listen and even when it is fails it fails in a unique and brilliant way. The man’s eccentricities were always on public display and that is true here, take for example how out of touch with reality he sounds on ‘Keep Your Head Up’ in which Michael describes a woman who works in a restaurant, ‘wasting her life away’, as if working as a waitress must be the most horrible and degrading thing in the world – and to him that’s how it must have seemed, after all he never had a ‘proper’ job in his life. So here he is telling the woman to ‘keep her head up’, in 4 minutes of overblown extravagance (choirs, strings, clapping – the lot), because the poor old woman works in a restaurant!

‘Breaking News’ is just as terrible now as it was when I first heard it but nowhere else will you hear a song like this, a song in which the singer blasts the tabloids, refers to himself in the third person, and repeats the line ‘why is it strange that I would fall in love?’. Who else could get away with singing this stuff, and even if on this occasion he can’t pull it off, watching him try is a lot of fun.

50 Cent pops up for an exhilarating cameo on Monster (just because he can) and Lenny Kravitz (remember him) wrote and produced ‘I Can’t Make It Another Day’ which is pretty strange, and it doesn’t work at all. However the fact is that although these bizarre moments are in some ways terrible they are also the most interesting parts of the album and it’s a massive shame that there aren’t more like them. unfortunately the rest of these songs (with two notable exceptions) are decent, but kind of average ballads that failed to make a massive impression on me. And unfortunately they have been horribly, horribly overproduced.

‘Behind the Mask’ best highlights just how out of touch these producers are with pop music in 2011. The song was originally recorded during the ‘Thriller’ sessions but in the end it was given to a group called ‘Yellow Magic Orchestra’ who had a hit with it. This is the first time Michael’s version of ‘Behind the Mask’ has been heard and only the vocals remain as the song has been given a 21st century update. But ironically, and sadly, the new version sounds far more dated than the Yellow Magic Orchestra original – that version made great use of a vocoder (an instrument very much back in vogue) and typically 1980’s synths, a sound which is also very much back in style thanks to the likes of La Roux, Lady Ga Ga and Passion Pit. The new version almost entirely gets rid of these elements (and therefore the song’s personality) so that it now just sounds like a late 90’s R&B song. Admittedly it’s still a really catchy track that brilliantly showcases Jackson’s vocals, but it could have been so much more.

Left to his own devices Michael Jackson was a stunning writer and producer in his own right, one of the great mysteries to me is why he wasn’t trusted (or confident) enough to work alone more often. The highlights of his recent career are the songs he wrote and produced himself (speechless from Invincible springs to mind) and apart from ‘Behind the mask’ the other major highlight here is Here ‘Much Too Soon’ which is also a solely self penned number. Stripped of the bombast, hype and hideous attempts to be contemporary that blight the rest of the record, ‘Much Too Soon’ is a stunningly intimate ballad in which Michael is accompanied by an acoustic guitar and harmonica. This kind of simplicity is almost non existent on every other studio album from ‘Bad’ onwards and it instantly ranks as one of my favourite Jackson songs which is saying something.

It’s hard for me to know how to Rate ‘Michael’ – on one hand I feel like giving it zero as a comment on how short sighted, clueless and heartless the producers and record company have been in putting it together. On the other hand, as a huge MJ fan, I feel like giving it ten as there are two (maybe three) songs on here that are pure, classic, MJ gold and i have had a great time listening to it. Maybe if I was rationale I would give it 5 because it’s certainly a bumpy and uneven ride with peaks and valleys. At the end of the day ‘Michael’ is both a hollywood blockbuster and a car crash you can’t take your eyes off. It’s a brilliant example of  a major label at their most ruthless and unartistic, and a genius being manipulated like a puppet. And yes, he was still a genius till the end and there is proof enough on ‘Michael’. It may be far from perfect but I’d rather have him like this than not at all.

8/10

Michael Jackson ‘Hold My Hand’

15 Nov

Coming hot on the heals of ‘Breaking News’, the abominable ‘taster’ of the new Michael Jackson album, is ‘Hold My Hand’. I wasn’t expecting anything great, the song is a duet with Akon after all, but it’s pretty good –  not ‘first single the first MJ album in 9 years’ good, but it’s still better than I thought it would be. It’s a big ballad with slick r&b production, standard soppy lyrics and lots of hollering which seems to be the general direction these ‘new’ songs are taking. I’ve still got my fingers crossed they are saving the best for last, preferably a proper dance number, but we’ll have to wait till the album is out in December to find out.

Stream the song here.

Michael Jackson ‘Breaking News’

8 Nov

I am a huge Michael Jackson fan and I am also a huge cynic when it comes to any future albums released under his name. ‘Breaking News’ is the first “new” track to be released since his death last year and honestly it sounds nothing like him. I’m no conspiracy theorist (some people online are claiming that this is a sound-alike) but his vocals have clearly been messed with to a fairly horrible extent. The song itself is dire, the production is about 20 years out of date and the lyrics are about how persecuted Michael felt by the press – in the past whenever he went really whiney things got very ugly and this is no different (see also ‘Leave Me Alone’, ‘Tabloid Junkie’ and ‘privacy’. In fairness the song gets better towards the end, the horns sound great and there is a weird synth that pokes its head up every now and then. Maybe Kanye West or Mark Ronson got something better out of MJ but if they didn’t this album could be a big disaster. At least the cover art is good…

http://breakingnews.michaeljackson.com/