Friday, December 24, 2010

Album Review: Michael Jackson - Michael (3.5/5)

Michael is the first posthumous release from Michael Jackson--the first of many if we're to believe the claims that Jackson amassed an archive of unreleased material before his death last year. To say this release has been controversial is an understatement. Some viewed this as a way to honor his legacy, to finish and release the songs he wanted his fans to hear. Others take another view--that Michael wouldn't have been happy with these songs unless he'd finished them himself. Further, some conspiracy-minded folks claim it is isn't even him singing on the tracks.

I'm willing to believe it's him singing. Certainly sounds like him to me. But I think the other criticism of the project is an important one. Jackson was notoriously perfectionist about his albums, working long hours to get each song exactly the way he wanted it. Without such finishing on these tracks, I can't help but wonder whether he would think they live up to his own standards.

As such, Michael feels more like the work of a group producers--albeit talented ones--with Michael relegated as guest singer. It also doesn't feel like an album, with the tracks cobbled together from various recording sessions from the last few years. Some, I suspect, are even older. Two of the songs produced by Teddy Riley, for example, "Monster" and "Breaking News," sound like Dangerous outtakes, sounding like updates of the new jack swing sound Riley produced for Jackson in 1991. Riley had subsequently produced tracks for Jackson on Invincible, and they didn't sound like this. "Monster" is pretty decent, but "Breaking News" treads many of the same tired cliches about fame and media exposure that Jackson has explored before. The best Riley-produced cut is "Hollywood Tonight," a groovy, upbeat song with funky guitar, a rollicking horns and synths melody and even some Jackson beat-boxing.

The album is heavy on ballads, a little too heavy in my opinion. "Hold My Hand" with Akon is decent enough, although it obviously tries (and fails) to be the next "Man in the Mirror," with its soaring melody and choir vocals. My favorite ballad is "(I Like) The Way You Love Me," which has an old school Motown feel to its sweet melody. The key changes at the end are fun too, as Jackson takes his voice higher and higher. An earlier version of this appeared on his 2004 compilation, The Ultimate Collection. "Keep Your Head Up" explores another Jackson cliche--the environmental song--while "Best of Joy" is fairly forgettable mid-tempo stuff.

Lenny Kravitz shows up to guest on and produce "(I Can't Make It) Another Day," which is a typical dark Jackson rocker in the vein of "Dirty Diana" or "Give It to Me." The album closes well with the upbeat "Behind the Mask" and tender ballad "Much Too Soon," both of which originated during Jackson's late '70s/early '80s creative peak. "Behind the Mask" is confident and fun, while "Much Too Soon" generates some genuine emotion missing from the other slow songs.

There's a lot to like here. Most of the songs are pretty good, and overall, it's better than his last album, Invincible. But it just doesn't feel like an album, which nags at me while I listen to it. Also, I suspect these songs are the best of the unreleased material, so I'm concerned subsequent similar releases will just go down from here. Surely, that's not the musical legacy Jackson would have liked to have left.

Best: Hollywood Tonight, Behind the Mask, (I Like) The Way You Love Me, Much Too Soon, Hold My Hand


Chris B. said...

Insightful review, ADH. Perhaps this *should* have been framed as a tribute album by a group of producers, with Michael billed as a guest singer.

ww_adh said...

It's not selling all that well. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a second single.