This past Friday I listened to Michael Jackson's highly-anticipated posthumous album, Michael (Epic), which is expected to hit stores in the U.S. on December 14th. I had many questions going in, not only about the music itself, but the process. How were the tracks selected? How much were they altered or embellished? And what was the end result?
Posthumous works are notoriously tricky. There are essentially two philosophical approaches: 1) present the material basically as it was found; or, 2) try to complete the artist's vision based on instructions and/or intuition. Either way comes with its own unique challenges and complications.
For the 2009 documentary, This Is It, the Estate of Michael Jackson opted for the first approach. Audiences around the world witnessed the raw rehearsals of what would have been an unprecedented concert spectacle. At the time, some complained that Jackson wouldn't have wanted people to see anything but the final, finished result. He was a perfectionist who gave everything to a performance; in the footage, however, he was often conserving his voice, marking his dance steps, and correcting mistakes. Yet there was something undeniably riveting and enlightening about watching the artist at work. It was tragic, of course, that his full vision was never realized. But for many viewers it humanized the singer, even as it showcased his extraordinary talent.
With this first posthumous album, however, a different approach was taken. All of the songs were completed within the past year by various collaborators and caretakers--ranging from Teddy Riley to Neff-U to Estate co-executor John McClain. Michael, his Estate said, left a "roadmap" behind, and they felt an obligation to finish what he had started. It was a risky decision that has caused a severe backlash amongst many of Jackson's core fans. A similar controversy resulted in 1995, when Paul, George and Ringo "finished" two John Lennon tracks ("Free as a Bird" and "Real Love") under the banner of the Beatles. For some fans, it could never be an "authentic" Beatles track without Lennon's full participation. Similarly, no matter how closely Akon, Lenny Kravitz and others worked with Jackson, could they ever fully intuit what he would have wanted on a given track?
In some cases, Jackson did indeed leave very specific notes and instructions. It is also well-known to those familiar with his artistic process that he frequently returned to tracks from previous album sessions and updated them. Versions of "Blood on the Dance Floor," "They Don't Care About Us," and "Earth Song," for example, were all originally recorded during the Dangerous sessions; but Jackson continued to tinker with each of these songs for years until he felt they were ready. A Michael Jackson song was never final until it made an official studio album.
This return-treatment is essentially what his collaborators have attempted on Michael. They wanted to make these tracks as fresh, vibrant and relevant as possible, believing that this is what Jackson would have wanted as well. Of course, in the end, since none of them are Michael Jackson, the best they could do is approximate. The album, then, is a hybrid creation. At times it feels truly inspired and very close to what Michael himself would have done; at other times, it feels a bit more like a tribute, similar to the remixes on Thriller 25.
Much of this probably won't even register to the average listener, who will simply listen to the music and decide whether they like it or not.
But because Michael Jackson is one of the most important artists of the past century the question of how much to modify the work he left behind is a very serious one. As amazing as the new version of "Behind the Mask" sounds, for example, it isn't the version Michael last worked on in the early 1980s. If for no other reason than documenting history, then, it would seem worthwhile to release the originals/demos as well (perhaps as bonus tracks or a supplementary album), even if they aren't perfectly polished or updated.
With that preface in place, I proceed to my review of the actual album, which, on the whole, really is an exciting and enjoyable listening experience. Indeed, for all the controversy about its authenticity, going through the album song by song, Jackson's presence is undeniable. His habits, his obsessions, his versatility, and his genius are on display at every turn.
Who else could move so seamlessly from social anthem to floor burner, fleet hip hop to cosmic rock, vintage funk to poignant folk ballad? Who besides Michael Jackson would follow a tender love song with a trenchant critique of the media? An uplifting gospel tune with a ferocious polemic on the monstrosity of Hollywood culture?
This, ultimately, is the most important quality of Michael: it feels like Michael.
The Estate and Sony should be given credit for retaining much of Jackson's edginess and eclecticism where they could have easily opted for a more traditional lineup. (For all the uproar over "Breaking News," I thought it was a pretty bold statement out of the gate in terms of its lyrical target.)
The album also contains some nice, natural touches, including Jackson's incredibly dynamic beatboxing (displayed most prominently on "Hollywood Tonight"), and a phone message introduction to "(I Like) The Way You Love Me," in which Jackson explains the composition of the song to longtime collaborator, Brad Buxer. The point of these examples is that Jackson the artist and person doesn't get swallowed in "over-production," as some have feared. In spite of its limitations, from opening line ("This life don't last forever...") to closing ("I guess I learned my lesson much too soon") a very intimate, authentic, humanizing picture evolves.
Below, is my song-by-song breakdown of the album:
Hold My Hand
Simple, but powerful love song turned social anthem. Since I already reviewed this, I will just point to the link. I'm actually stunned this isn't charting better in the U.S., but maybe that will change when the video premiers and the holidays draw closer.
Definitely an album highlight. The song begins with a haunting Gothic church choir, before transforming into an energetic dance stomper. I'm not too keen on the spoken parts (performed by nephew, Taryll Jackson), but clearly there were places in the song Michael hadn't filled yet. The track features Michael in a notably deeper voice, and concludes with military-style whistling. As Ellen displayed on her show last week, the song will get people up and moving.
Keep Your Head Up
Narrates the life of an ordinary woman "looking for the hope in the empty promises." The song is well-suited to the current economic climate and will likely resonate with many listeners. The back half of the song offers a classic MJ crescendo, with the gospel choir providing the lift and communal strength the woman needs to keep going. (Fans will be happy to know the "Earth Song" ad libs heard on a leaked version of the track were removed.)
(I Like) The Way You Love Me
Great new production by Neff-U that was being actively discussed and transformed with Michael in Los Angeles (the original demo appeared on the 2004 boxed set, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection). The new version retains all of the charm of the original while injecting some fresh elements, including new piano, bass, strings, and vocal effects.
A blistering rhythm track that probably hits harder than any song on the album. Features a rap solo by 50 Cent, guitar work by Orianthi, and excellent production by Teddy Riley. As Jackson holds a mirror up to society, asking us to observe the distorted reflection, I couldn't help but picture the horrifying scene of paparazzi shoving their cameras up against the ambulance carrying him to the hospital. "Everywhere you seem to turn there's a monster," he sings. "Paparazzi got you scared like a monster." Some reviewers continue to dismiss songs like this as petty "ranting" and "paranoia," but this is some deft social criticism for those who look beyond the surface. It has all the makings of a hit single.
Best of Joy
A breezy mid-tempo ballad, Jackson's falsetto is as effortless as ever as he sings promises to a loved one. Recorded in Los Angeles in 2009, this was one of his final recordings, and he still sounds fantastic.
The song will likely be forever-linked to the controversy surrounding its vocals. Yet in spite of the backlash, the content of the song is classic Michael Jackson, following in the tradition of anti-media tracks like "Leave Me Alone, "Tabloid Junkie," and "Privacy." The repeated use of the name, "Michael Jackson," highlights the way his name has been objectified--it is simply a media construct, a "boogieman," that the real Michael feels detached from. The exaggerated way the name is uttered humorously mocks the way the media exploits him for sensational effect. While the strength and clarity of the vocals clearly aren't up to Jackson's standards, the song itself is quite good. The harmonized chorus is catchy and memorable. Teddy Riley gives the song a fresh but faithful sheen. One can easily imagine the song as an outtake from the Dangerous or HIStory sessions.
(I Can't Make It) Another Day
Originally recorded by Jackson and Lenny Kravitz in 1999 at the legendary Marvin's Room Studio, the track has Michael summoning a cosmic power over a rugged, industrial funk beat and a soaring chorus. This is an example, however, of the new version sounding more like a Kravitz tribute to Jackson, rather than a Jackson track. In the original, Jackson's vocals are less overwhelmed by the drums and guitar, allowing him to convey the full mystery and wonder of the lyrics. Kravitz's update isn't too different, but enough to change the feel of the song. It still rocks, but in a different way than the original.
Behind the Mask
"Behind the Mask" was originally intended for Thriller, but left off reportedly because of a song credit dispute. It was later covered by Jackson's keyboardist Greg Phillinganes as well as Eric Clapton. Had Jackson released it in 1982, the quirky Yellow Magic Orchestra adaptation likely would have been a big hit. Estate executor John McClain updates it skillfully in this new version, making it sound brand new and retro at the same time. It is definitely one of the highlights of the album. Still, many fans will likely be anxious to hear those classic sheets of synth and 80s production on the original demo. Modernizing the production does make it fit better with the album, though it's unclear if Jackson himself planned to update the track.
Much Too Soon
An excellent choice to end the album, "Much Too Soon" showcases Jackson's ability as a singer-songwriter to magnificent effect. An exquisite expression of loss and yearning, it stands should-to-shoulder with some of the best folk ballads of The Carpenters and The Beatles. The lyrics almost read like a W.B. Yeats poem.
The track was first written by Jackson in 1981 and revisited multiple times over the years. The vocal on this version was recorded in 1994 at The Hit Factory during the HIStory sessions. It was originally engineered and mixed by Bruce Swedien (this version leaked online a couple weeks ago); the album version, featuring more prominent accordion and strings, was re-produced for the Michael album by estate co-executor John McClain.
In the song, a forlorn Jackson, accompanied by the subtle acoustic guitar work of Tommy Emmanuel, sings about being separated from a loved one "much too soon." The bridge features a harmonica solo that highlights the song's folk-blues essence, before Jackson returns with a final verse about "never letting fate control [his] soul." It is a beautiful, bittersweet song that perfectly balances hope and regret, loneliness and the desire for reconciliation. For all Jackson's superstardom, "Much Too Soon" reminds that behind the media construct was a human being.
Call it a collage, an approximation, or a tribute. Or call it, as many of Michael's collaborators have: "a labor of love." That sentiment certainly shines through on the record. Yet obviously, this is not the exact album Jackson would have created. For a variety of reasons, many tracks that Jackson was working on during his final years aren't on the tracklist (including those with will.i.am). In addition, the vocals, particularly on a couple of the "Cascio tracks," don't always measure up to Jackson's typical strength and vitality, leading some to label them as "fake." Until a forensic analysis or some other concrete evidence proves otherwise that conspiracy theory doesn't hold up for me--especially after hearing the final album versions on very good speakers. But occasionally, the creative liberties taken do seem questionable, or at the very least, unexplained. For the purists (myself included), it would be nice, in addition to the current album versions, to have some of these songs as they were last heard by Michael--just as it was nice to see Michael un-mediated in This Is It.
But the bottom line is this: Michael contains some very impressive new material. One job of Jackson's Estate is to extend his legacy to new generations of listeners and this album will likely accomplish that. At ten songs, it is a tight, diverse, almost 80s-esque LP--which also means fans have many more songs in the vaults to look forward to. In the meantime, songs like "Hollywood Tonight," "Monster," "Behind the Mask," and "Much Too Soon" make excellent additions to an already legendary catalog.
© Joseph Vogel
Joe Vogel is the author of the forthcoming book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson (Sterling 2011).