Album: Michael Jackson, Michael (Sony)
Schmaltz, thrills and 'hee-hees': how Michael Jackson lives on
Sunday 12 December 2010
Supposedly "conceived and inspired by the King of Pop", the "new" Michael Jackson album – heard by this reviewer in one of those supervised listening sessions where you're accosted as soon as you leave the room by a PR person asking for your verdict – is a controversial entity from the very start.
After all, let's be honest: his previous studio album Invincible mostly sucked... and he was alive for that. Sony and the Jackson estate, keen to defend the validity of the project, make much play of the "creative vision" Michael left behind, even though, by their own admission, the source material is drawn from several decades' worth of demos. The press release ominously promises more to come, prompting fears that a Tupac Shakur-style industry of barrel-scraping may be upon us. For now, the good news is that Jackson's voice doesn't appear to have aged too badly in his later years, albeit a little rawer around the edges.
The 10-track Michael opens with the Akon collaboration "Hold My Hand", a piece of orchestral R&B with the lump-in-throat line "this life don't last forever". "Hollywood Tonight", on which an Enigma-style monastic chant gives way to tuff Teddy Riley beats reminiscent of "Scream", is the tale of a 15-year-old girl lured to Tinseltown only to end up turning tricks. The schmaltzy "Keep Your Head Up" is described in the blurb as "inspirational", which I suppose is true if you find lines such as "Give me your wings so we can fly" inspiring.
Suddenly, on track four, something amazing happens. The summery, "(I Like) the Way You Love Me" begins with a snatch of Jackson humming and beatboxing into a Dictaphone: "This is the tempo and this is the melody..." Those few seconds are the most thrilling of the whole record.
By contrast, the 50 Cent duet "Monster", another song about what stardom does to the human spirit, suffers from a kitchen-sink production. "Best of Joy", on which the singer was still working at the time of his death, is another return to gooey triteness. "Breaking News", a weird mish-mash of 1990s New Jack rhythms and machine-gun beats, begins with a mocked-up montage of clamouring media coverage, eerily echoing the aftermath of MJ's death. The presence of Lenny Kravitz (and Dave Grohl on drums) ensures that "(I Can't Make It) Another Day" is a piece of strident rock-soul, though it does include a trademark "hee-hee".
The album ends with the Thriller-era "Much Too Soon", a weepie containing one last stunning moment where the music drops out and Michael's breathy vocal is left alone.
The final page of the CD booklet contains a back-of-an-envelope quote, in Jackson's shaky handwriting: "We only live once. Since we are given the gift of life, it should be a persistent endeavour to immortalise ourselves, no matter what field of endeavour we choose." One has to ask: is Michael what he had in mind?
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