Album: Michael Jackson, Michael (Epic)
Friday 10 December 2010
By my reckoning, Michael is the sixth posthumous album by Michael Jackson, albeit the first with any serious claim on containing a majority of original new material.
The term "original new material", however, covers a multitude of origins. Substantial tranches of Michael are drawn from Jackson's vault of unreleased songs, from the Thriller-era ballad "Much Too Soon" that closes the album in a swamp of soupy strings and harmonica, to "Hollywood Tonight", an outtake from the 2007 Invincible sessions dusted off by Teddy Riley, in which the dubious allure of stardom is anatomised over a pumping swingbeat groove and the singer's "chicka-chicka" beatboxing. The fact that the star himself opted to drive himself to illness and an early grave rather than release an album of such outtakes, however, surely tells its own story.
This is a strange, piecemeal affair singularly lacking the focused character one expects of a new studio album. The familiar hard-snapping snares and falsetto "whoo-hoos" are liberally scattered throughout its ten tracks, but understandably, there's little sense of direction. Guests flit in and out, often imposing their own sound: the opening duet "Hold My Hand" is so thoroughly Akon-ised it's virtually a battle for supremacy; "Another Day" would obviously be a Lenny Kravitz rock-soul exercise even if it didn't have Dave Grohl hammering away on drums; "Behind The Mask" is actually a Yellow Magic Orchestra recording overlaid with Jackson's vocals and favoured beat. Ironically, given the star's obsession with concealment – the masks, the surgery, etc – the lyric deals with his desire to remove someone else's mask so he can tell "who do you love?".
Several tracks were recorded at the New Jersey home of a hotel manager, Dominic Cascio, whose sons Eddie and Frank were being mentored by Jackson. It's these tracks – the horror-themed "Monster", featuring a typically formulaic rap by 50 Cent; the gloopy ballad "Keep Your Head Up", about a waitress encouraged to persevere and "[keep] your wings so you can fly"; and "Breaking News", a standard anti-media broadside prefaced with a montage of broadcast headlines about the singer – that have proven the most controversial inclusions on Michael, with allegations about the authenticity of the songs and doubts being cast on whether the voice featured is actually Jackson's, or an imposter's.
These allegations are so persistent that Sony has rounded up a substantial posse of the singer's former associates, engineers and sundry forensic musicologists to confirm their belief that it's actually Michael singing – though how they can tell when the voice has been so thoroughly processed is anyone's guess. As in life, Jackson seems doomed to be the subject of controversy and litigation even in his grave. Nor does it seem likely to end in the foreseeable future, with the press release referring to "the incredible wealth of other amazing tracks Michael left behind". I'd take that "amazing" with a pinch of salt, mind.
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