We are more than 35 years into the practice of record labels utilizing compact discs to sell a venerated artist's catalogue while also telling a story through the format's expanded capacity and clarion sound capabilities. The one-two punch of Bob Dylan's Biograph (1985) and Eric Clapton's Crossroads (1988) helped legitimize the idea of the CD box set and put both artists' bodies of work in sharper focus at a time when both of them were, should we say, not as relevant to the cultural conversation. The possibilities were limitless, we might have thought at the time; what would an artist like, say, Michael Jackson - handily the best-selling artist in record-buying history, then and now - look like when held up to the shining mirror of the compact disc overview?
With Thriller 40 (MJJ/Epic/Legacy 19658 73456-2), the third major reissue of Jackson's (anyone's!) bestselling album, the answer is "Keep dreaming." Michael's towering artistic achievements and human foibles were staggering in their depth and breadth, both in life and death. This strangely muted, potentially obscured, almost certainly half-hearted exercise in catalogue maintenance is similarly shocking in its lack of substance - hardly a footnote in one of culture's most notable artistic icons.
Too High to Get Over, Too Low to Get Under
The last decade-plus has not been an easy time for anyone who adores Michael Jackson's catalogue. The first efforts in posthumous releases of his Epic works were fine if either middling or hastily assembled. The first full album of unreleased material more than likely featured a soundalike singing several of the songs - a problem that never befell Elvis or The Beatles - and through it all, Jackson's estate (working their way out of a generous tax bill) remained poised if defensive of their figurehead. After the solid presentations of a 25th anniversary box set for Bad in 2012 and another album of outtakes, 2014's Xscape (featuring modernized production, untouched demos, and a surprise Top 10 hit), the possibilities seemed solid again.
A 2016 reissue of Off the Wall offered no bonus audio but a solid documentary from Spike Lee, who'd done an even better one for Bad. (There was also chalk, for some reason.) A year later, a vaguely Halloween-themed compilation (and very Halloween-themed television special) were released, the last piece of the puzzle before Jackson's estate and Sony Music Entertainment renewed their agreement to keep working together, with plans for a Broadway musical and biopic eventually ironed out.
Then the seas started to roil. In the wake of larger conversations about abuses of power within the entertainment world, a 2019 HBO documentary refocused a harsh light on the contentious allegations of misconduct that dogged Jackson in the '90s and '00s. (Jackson settled one case in 1993 and was tried and acquitted in another in 2005. The wide array of fact, opinion, and intersectional thoughts on race, class, death and justice in the Western world are too vast for a review of a reissued album.) While not as damning, it's also worth noting that during this time, Jackson's onetime rival Prince - who also passed away far too soon and left behind a sticky estate to handle - was the subject of catalogue pieces that sated fans' desire for his unreleased material.
Fans justifiably started asking themselves what the deal was, to the point that Jackson's estate issued a bizarre, unpublicized defense. The tone of that defense is something one can't help but come back to from time to time; it colored the justifiable confusion surrounding Thriller 40's initial redesigned cover, and even feels relevant to the conversation that this reissue exposed a pretty big scandal in the audiophile community. And it certainly might ring in your head when you consider what the Thriller 40 package is - and certainly is not.
It Doesn't Matter Who's Wrong or Right
A double-disc reissue of Thriller at least has one half of it working: the original nine-track album that unquestioningly altered popular culture with its release. No one expected the onetime juvenile frontman of The Jackson 5 to be the avatar of a new artistic vibe shift; hell, when he appeared on the cover of Ebony, the focus was equally on his narration of a storybook album of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. But Jackson's endless sonic curiosity, alignment with a stellar cast of musicians (from producer Quincy Jones, songwriter Rod Temperton, and Paul McCartney, to session legends like Greg Phillinganes, David Foster and four members of Toto), and pointed refusal to merely check the boxes of "Black music department" was a magical combination. You know the figures: seven Top 10 hits (out of nine tracks), a triplicate of groundbreaking music videos that challenged racial gatekeeping on MTV (including a cinematic short film for "Thriller"), and a record-setting eight Grammy Awards in a single night (including, funnily enough, one for that E.T. storybook).
Happily, these nine tracks still jell extraordinarily as a buffet of genius-level pop descending down from different planets. The breathless percussion of opener "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," the spare ice-funk of "Billie Jean," the chin-jutting, Eddie Van Halen-powered rock muscle of "Beat It," the soft grooves of "Human Nature" and "The Lady in My Life" - even the easygoing corn of McCartney duet "The Girl is Mine" - there really isn't a dud in the bunch, and you might find yourself surprised to perk up at a tune, ad-lib or solo that hasn't hit you in the solar plexus in awhile. (This pressing was mastered by Brian "Big Bass" Gardner, in the employ of Bernie Grundman Mastering; Grundman, of course, originally mastered Thriller.)
Remember to Always Think Twice
Michael Jackson fans have had a lot of time and opportunities to envision a definitive Thriller reissue. It's been expanded in some form twice in the 21st century, offering once a smattering of demos and rarities and another time a spate of truly unnecessary remixes. It's not hard to imagine a proper box set chronicling all the material for posterity, from outtakes to remixes, single versions, the short films, alternate takes and mixes - a true top-to-bottom assessment of the long road to the sacred text of Thriller. Failing that, the goal should be at least to take up an album's length to tell a compelling story of some sort. Michael's lifelong commitment to perfectionism is well-documented, which of course clashes with the idea of rare or unreleased demos - but there's a way to reconcile the two. And it's probably not through Thriller 40's bonus disc.
The 10 bonus tracks of the set - four of which have been previously released on other compilations and archival sets - range between somewhat intriguing curios and fascinating messy scribbles. Unsurprisingly, most of the previously heard stuff is solid. Demo "Got the Hots," included on the Japanese version of 2008's Thriller 25 reissue, features soaring close harmonies against a killer groove. The Michael Sembello-penned slow groove "Carousel," scuttled at the last minute in favor of "Human Nature," is finally heard in full on a U.S. release, having been excerpted on a 2001 reissue of the album. Less successful is the wasteful Thriller-era B-side "Can't Get Outta the Rain," a portion of a disco version of The Wiz track "You Can't Win" with one overdubbed lyric and few chord changes; "Sunset Driver" remains a standout, but feels firmly of a piece with Off the Wall, not Thriller.
What remains are some less familiar versions of well-known tunes that have limited replay value, and material that'd test the truest believers. "Starlight," a demo for the Temperton-penned "Thriller," is most notable for its budding song structure. A stripped-back, low-quality demo of "Behind the Mask," a Yellow Magic Orchestra rewrite later covered by Greg Phillinganes and Eric Clapton, is rawer than the track overdubbed for the Michael album; it would have been interested to hear that one as originally cut. "The Toy," a drippy ballad briefly considered for the nightmarish flop film of the same name starring Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason, is most notable for being rewritten decades later as the similarly saccharine "Best of Joy." Yearning harmonies and a muscular, ascending four-note guitar riff barely save the unheard "Who Do You Know"; "She's Trouble," a catchy enough song, wasn't strong enough for Musical Youth, either. And "What a Lovely Way to Go," propelled by mouth percussion, a Queen-ish piano roll and pure nonsense lyrics, is for people who want everything Michael committed to tape.
None of this material really comments on Thriller or its impact. In demo forms, it's hard to picture what they would have sounded like on the final album, and it's likely that any of these tracks would have upset the rhythm of that record. Without Michael present to comment on these tracks - did he want the posthumous material released? - the disc feels that much more soulless, a cash grab for fans of their fallen hero.
A lingering subtext does exist that Thriller was a hair's breath from flopping at any moment: the breakneck weeks leading to its release involved a painstaking remix of the tracks and cutting down a few songs that would live on in longer form on 12" singles. Of course, none of that material is here. There's little to set the scene in the package, either: just two signpost dates establishing when the album began and ended production and a few short blurbs on the bonus tracks that were already used as social posts. If you followed the track-by-track reveal, you've read them already.
The Foulest Stench is in the Air
With CD reissues far from their infancy, it should not be such a Sisyphean task to envision a better Thriller reissue. Fans deserve better but will seemingly settle for whatever; the album returned to the Top 10 after this reissue hit stores. The estate will follow its idiosyncratic path selling tickets to Cirque du Soleil shows and posting increasingly alien social copy. And we will have the music - the stuff Michael put out, the stuff he sidelined until it came time to clean the cupboards. Perhaps we should be grateful for what we have - but the man they called the King of Pop was never content to sit back and settle. Why should we?