Pop humpty-dumpty Michael Jackson has a new album out today. If that statement seems odd, you don’t know the half of it; five years after his death, Jackson is only on album number two. Compared to a trooper like Tupac – who still manages a couple of albums per year, despite having copped it in 1996 – his posthumous output is actually pretty sluggish.
Record labels have always had a talent for cashing in on their dead charges. The zombie discs that result are generally made up of songs the ‘artist’ was too embarrassed to release when he recorded them. Michael Jackson’s new one, Xscape goes one further. It’s a cut ‘n’ paste job of unused demos and vocal off-cuts remixed by some producers who were quite cool circa 2002. It’s thus hard to approach it without thinking of that Spitting Image sketch where Konstantin Chernenko’s corpse is made to lip-synch a public address.
It doesn’t bode particularly well. I’ve always thought the Jackson ‘classics’ – the albums he recorded before going white and weird – were a bit overrated. As 80s MTV stars go, I’d take Prince or Madonna over Michael Jackson any day. Time was not kind to the strangest man in pop. The bolder the claims made by Jackson’s album titles – Off the Wall; Thriller; Bad; Dangerous – the less interesting they became. (The last one he released during his lifetime was called Invincible. Ouch.)
Ignore the air of exploitation and Xscape is okay; it veers inoffensively between second rate R’n’B and squeaky funk wallpaper. Hardly thrilling, but more fun than anything else Jackson’s name has been attached to in the last twenty-odd years. Though given that this takes in some of the most embarrassing music ever recorded (have you heard ‘Earth Song’ recently?), that’s really not saying much.
The highlights don’t soar, but they’re pleasant enough. The single, ‘Love Never Felt so Good’ (I’m having real trouble resisting the necrophilia gags), is catchy, though it falls well short of the summer smash charm it strives for. The title track is Thriller-lite, which won’t upset anyone. ‘Chicago’, a retro-futurist 80s soul track, is actually quite exciting, the only moment where the album feels entirely necessary.
Hearing a voice that’s been manipulated from beyond the grave is always going to be creepy, and when it’s singing lines like ‘I’ve been abused, watch me light in fuse’, on Xscape’s ‘Blue Gangsta’, you can’t help but feel spooked. The first part sounds like a confession from a deeply troubled man, but it’s tacked onto a throwaway conclusion to make it scan. Otherwise, regardless of taste, it’s a bit pathetic. ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ begs comparisons to the Grace Jones hit of the same name: they don’t turn out favourably.
The merits aren’t worth it. In the end, it leaves a bad taste. All the king’s horses…