'Jew me, sue me, everybody do me.' We are a long way from Thriller. Giles Smith on the new Michael Jackson

Yesterday a giant statue of Michael Jackson in military armour was floated up the Thames in central London to mark, with the modesty and sense of proportion for which these occasions are renowned, the launch of the singer's new album, HIStory: Past Present and Future. Jackson himself was absent, but he doesn't need to be around to cause a stir, nor even present in massively inflated form. A more modest, cardboard version of the statue, positioned recently in the windows of Epic Records in London, has, a receptionist there said, drawn tourists with cameras. He's back, then, and the madness can start again.

HIStory contains Jackson's first recordings since he settled out of court over those allegations of child molestation. These are also his first pieces of music since he married Elvis Presley's daughter last year. This would have been an eventful and interesting period in anybody's life, and speculation has raged for months about how it might inform Jackson's comeback album. Now we know, though you'll have to buy two CDs to find out. The new one (subtitle, History Continues) is packaged with History Begins, a selection of 15 greatest hits, re-mastered to sound slightly crisper, so long as your hi-fi is up to these kinds of distinction.

Prior to yesterday's general release, journalists were allowed to hear the new half of HIStory only in strictly controlled laboratory conditions. Group listening sessions were arranged in a rehearsal room at the record company offices - a mini-drama of secrecy and paranoia which testified to the conviction of Epic Records, at least, that here was potentially flammable material, to be leaked with caution.

David Glew, the chairman of the Epic Records Group, announced in a press release that this was "an intensely personal record" and, by Jackson's standards, you would have to concede that it is. Up to now his writing has tended to centre on dancing, rarified love and fantasy scenarios seemingly clipped from comic-books. The new material (in particular "Scream", "They Don't Care About Us", "This Time Around", "DS" and "Tabloid Junkie", all sung at Jackson's most pent-up and throaty) does at least seem to feature things recognisably of this world.

Even so, it would be stretching things to claim that this album dealt openly with the Jordan Chandler case and all that followed. What the lyrics confront is rather the emotional residue of those events; which is to say anger, bitterness and a general sense of being hard done by which you may find hard to swallow coming from one of the wealthiest men in the world. "Jew me, sue me," he rants, "everybody do me". We are some way from "T-t-t thriller!"

The entire package could be very simply read as an enormously costly boat-steadying operation. That statue, which appears on the sleeve, was evidently inspired by the Monument to Victory in Volgograd, Russia (though, with its bluey-grey, moulded appearance, it has the possibly inadvertent effect of making Jackson look like something that fell out of the Rice Krispies). Initially it seems odd that one of the most lithe bodies in the history of dance should choose to develop an image of itself cast in clumsy stone. But on reflection, given what has gone on, maybe it's more expedient for Jackson to appear monolithic rather than physically louche right now.

The resumption of normal service continues in the thick accompanying booklet which contains pictures of Jackson with some well-connected pals - with the Clintons, Bill and Hillary, and with the Reagans, Ronald and Nancy, though not, oddly, with the Mice, Mickey and Minnie, with whom Jackson spent a lot of time round the launch of Dangerous. There are also lavish character references from the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Steven Spielberg and Elizabeth Taylor. This is impressive, though one wonders whether, if one was in the market for testaments to one's own uncomplicated worldliness, these would necessarily be the first people one would call on.

Musically, the album is considerably less hard work than the mostly noisy and ugly Dangerous. The three co-productions with Jam & Lewis are closest to that record in spirit - one-chord jams with tin drums and electronic bangs and crunches. Other tracks branch our further. "History" manages somehow to shift from sampled passages of military marching music into a sweet chorus which McCartney would have been chuffed with. Still, the proximity of those greatest hits serves to remind how much the distinctiveness in the way Jackson used to sound was down to the producer Quincy Jones, who worked on Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad. It's no surprise that HIStory's most blissful track - "Money", the rhythm track of which bumps gently against a fabulous bank of soft harmonies - harks directly back in both feel and chords to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough".

Of course, one can quibble like this, but in the end, for anyone curious about Jackson this album is unmissable. Even its terrible moments tend to have a hilarious pay-load; like the lush, Elton John-like anthem "Earth Song", in which Jackson is moved to ask: "What about elephants? Have we lost their trust?" And like the richly strung "Childhood", in which Jackson impersonates Streisand doing "Evergreen". "It's been my fate," he sings, "to compensate for the childhood I've never known." Hard to believe this is a Jackson composition; it's bad enough to be a Lloyd Webber. But you would be sorry never to have heard it.

To wavering prospective buyers, one can only say: take the plunge. At least you'll get the old ones. You could try to ignore it, but there are cardboard statues the world over defying you to do so.

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