Last winter, with Michael Jackson's sudden passing not even five months in the past, Motown and Universal Music Enterprises released I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters, a ten-track compilation that was certainly the first in a long salvo of cash-in, vault-clearing titles in honor of the King of Pop (it was wisely marketed as commemorating the 40th anniversary of the J5's first single, which was true enough). Surprisingly, after a great but ill-timed box set collecting Jackson's solo albums and a series of not-entirely-necessary remixes from the label, I Want You Back! was a fitting tribute to the first great period of Jackson's long career, featuring strong vault tracks that had largely never been heard before.
Anxiously, fans waited for a similar set from Epic and Legacy Recordings, controllers of what may be the most famous part of Jackson's discography, particularly the unbroken train of solo greatness that was Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987). Sony's first posthumous venture, a soundtrack tie-in to the This is It rehearsal film, was not kind to collectors, tacking on one vault song at the end of a hits disc and sticking a mere four demos onto a bonus CD. Finally, after a record-setting album deal and a heaping helping of controversy, the first batch of vault cuts has been released, under the simple title Michael (Epic 88697 66773-2).
In short, the album is nothing you'd expect it to be: it is not the work of a legend rising like a phoenix from the ashes of failure, and it is not a dismal, hackneyed album exemplifying how much Jackson squandered his talent. What is it, then? Let's talk after the jump.
The back of the jewel case bears a somewhat difficult-to-read message in gold ink: "This album contains 9 previously unreleased vocal tracks performed by Michael Jackson. These tracks were recently completed using music from the original vocal tracks and music created by the credited producers." After a long couple of weeks in which fans and critics debated how much of the vocals on the tunes actually belonged to Jackson, this is the closest we get to a disclaimer, and it's a bit confusing if you don't have an in-depth knowledge of Jackson's recorded output. (There are 10 tracks on Michael - nine of the aforementioned, unreleased vocal tracks and one constructed from a demo heard on The Ultimate Collection box set from 2004.)
Much of the controversy can be traced to "Breaking News," an unwise choice as the first track to play from the album, as it sounds the least like the singer we all know and love. Some have placed the voice as that of Jason Malachi, a session singer who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jackson's tenor (though it is not indistinguishable - Malachi's tones are a bit rougher-hewn than Jackson's). Others, including Teddy Riley, who worked with Jackson on 1991's Dangerous and contributed heavily to Michael, placed the blame on technical processing that was necessary to keep Jackson's not-as-strong voice afloat. (The brief notes that accompany the lyrics say that Jackson sometimes liked to mask his voice to impersonate his critics - a weak attempt at justifying the differences in the vocal track if ever there was one.)
Whatever the reason - let's face it, nobody's ever going to know - one thing is certain: there are three songs on the album that feature lower, heavily-processed vocals that rank as the worst tracks on the album. Those would be "Breaking News," "Hollywood Tonight" (a dance track so threadbare that the third verse is the first verse, looped from its place at the top of the song) and "Monster" (featuring an uninspired set of verses from once-great rapper 50 Cent - it doesn't sound like 50's on the track, either).
Happily, though, the remaining seven tracks are not only almost indisputably Michael, but they're actually pretty good. One of the easiest criticisms of Jackson's post-Bad output was that he seemed content either repeating himself or following the trends of others (New Jack swing on Dangerous, toothless, synth-heavy R&B/soul on Invincible (2001)). Maybe this listener's ears have been influenced by Jackson's death, but the singer seems oddly at ease on these tracks, in spite of their inability to break new ground. It's as though the burden of creating blockbuster hits was finally out of his mind, replaced instead by a desire to just make decent music. Tracks like "Hold My Hand" and "(I Can't Make It) Another Day" (which, in fairness, are both collaborations - Lenny Kravitz on the latter and Akon on the former) are strong tunes, even if they're evocative of past glories ("Another Day" sounds like it could've been included on the HIStory album, some 15 years ago.)
While Michael primarily focuses on songs recorded in the past decade - after he had seemingly left Sony behind for some upstart label in Bahrain - there are a few bones thrown to fans of the classic era. The last two tracks on the disc, "Behind the Mask" and "Much Too Soon," date from the early '80s (though "Much Too Soon" wouldn't be recorded until about a decade later). While they're both great songs, they're stuck with a lot of overproduction that dilutes the pure magic of their craftsmanship. This is especially true of "Behind the Mask" (an update of a Yellow Magic Orchestra song which was ultimately recorded by Eric Clapton and Greg Phillinganes in the '80s), which could have been a great Thriller-esque outtake were it not for the distracting crowd noise and sequencer overdubs. (Perhaps future box sets could dial the song back to normal, circa 1984?)
The bottom line: Michael, as an album, tells us something we already knew - that the chances of making another Thriller were nonexistent. But it also tells us that, even in a period where we expected (and generally received) no music from him at all, he was making music better than you or I may have expected.