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Michael Jackson: Man in the Music, Part 2 (Morphine)

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[This is Part 2 of a series exploring Michael Jackson the artist through his albums and songs. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 5 of Man in the Music: An Album by Album Guide to Michael Jackson]

People often struggle with allowing artists to grow and evolve. For Bob Dylan it was considered sacrilege by many to pick up an electric guitar; for the Beatles, the shift from sentimental love songs to social statements and psychedelia caused them to lose, in some people's minds, their initial charm and mass appeal. For Michael Jackson, the conventional wisdom meant every album post-Thriller that didn't sound or sell like Thriller was considered a failure; this, in spite of the fact that some of his most significant and challenging work came later. Call it the curse of expectational stasis.

Still, for those who gave Blood on the Dancefloor: HIStory in the Mix a serious listen, it was an impressive record indeed. Containing just five new songs, the album is considered an artistic breakthrough by some. "His singing on the first five tracks of new material has never been so tormented, or audacious," wrote Armond White of Village Voice. "'Blood on the Dancefloor' has the vitality of an intelligence that refuses to be placated. . .[It] is a throwdown, a dare to the concept of innocuous Black pop." In a 1997 review, The New York Times' Neil Strauss concurred: "There is real pain and pathos in these new songs... Jackson's pain is often the world's merriment, and this is probably true of his new songs, which fret about painkillers, sexual promiscuity and public image. In many of them, Jackson seems like the elephant man, screaming that he is a human being... In keeping with Jackson's darker mood, the music has grown more angry and indignant. With beats crashing like metal sheets and synthesizer sounds hissing like pressurized gas, this is industrial funk... Creatively, Jackson has entered a new realm."

In the gritty, haunting "Morphine," Jackson tackles a subject he never had before: drug addiction. To a relentless, industrial funk beat, the singer lashes out in visceral bursts of anger, aggression, and pain. "Is truth a game daddy," he screams out at one point. "To win the fame baby/It's all the same baby/You're so reliable." The rage and disappointment, combined with its ear-assaulting sound (music critic Tom Sinclair described it as "alternating Trent Reznor-style sturm und clang with Bacharachian orchestral pomp"), make for a jarring listening experience, particularly for those accustomed to the breezier melodic pop of Off the Wall and Thriller (though it should be noted that songs like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Billie Jean" were already beginning to uncover the complexity, paranoia and pain represented in these later tracks). But "Morphine" is best viewed as an experiment -- both sonically and lyrically -- in representing the experience of physical/psychological pain as well as its temporary release via narcotic pain relievers like demerol and morphine (both of which Jackson has been reportedly addicted to, on and off, since the early Nineties).

This experience is also brilliantly conveyed in the song's form: About mid-way through the track, the grating beat subsides, symbolically representing the pacifying effect of the drug. "Relax, this won't hurt you," Jackson sings soothingly from the perspective of the drug.

[Click here and scroll down to "Morphine" to listen. The interlude begins at approximately the 2:48 mark]

Before I put it in
Close your eyes and count to ten
Don't cry
I won't convert you
There's no need to dismay
Close your eyes and drift away

Demerol
Demerol
Oh God he's taking demerol
Demerol
Demerol
Oh God he's taking demerol

He's tried
Hard to convince her
To be over what he had
Today he wants it twice as bad
Don't cry
I won't resent you
Yesterday you had his trust
Today he's taking twice as much

Demerol
Demerol
Oh God he's taking demerol
Demerol
Demerol
Oh God he's taking demerol

These verses are perhaps some of the most poignant (and tragic) Jackson has ever sung. Beyond the literalness of the drug itself is Jackson's persistent yearning to escape from pain, loneliness, confusion, and relentless pressure. In this brief interlude he beautifully conveys the soothing, seductive, but temporary release from reality. There is a sense of pleading, of desperation, before the high abruptly ends, and the listener is slammed back into the harsh world of accusations and anguish. Sputnik Music described this musical sequence as a "moment of absolute genius." The song, written and composed entirely by Jackson, is one of his most experimental and brilliant creations. It is a confession, a personal intervention, a witness, and a warning.

[Note: This analysis of "Morphine" was written before Michael Jackson's death. It becomes all the more tragic given reports that narcotics like demerol and morphine may have contributed to his passing.]

(Copyright by Joseph Vogel, from Man in the Music: An Album by Album Guide to Michael Jackson)