Whatever creative evolution Michael Jackson intended for himself in middle age, we will never really know; his legacy now falls to the executors who control his vast musical estate.
One can understand, though, why the superstar went quiet after releasing his last album of new material, 2001’s respectable if ultimately underwhelming “Invincible.” A famously relentless perfectionist in the studio, he kept his post-“Invincible” recording sessions under wraps while peers like Prince and Madonna remained relatively prolific.
But death, as late icons from Johnny Cash to Tupac Shakur have shown us, can be a great motivator — at least for the beneficiaries left behind. Even before Jackson went on to become by far the best-selling artist of last year, the posthumous product rush seemed inevitable. Now, in addition to the MJ-themed videogame, docu-film, and Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, his estate has promised seven more releases over the next seven years.
The material on “Michael” is not by any means a deep dive into the Jackson archives; nearly all the songs are culled from the last five years of his life. Opener and first single “Hold My Hand” supplies the broad, pleasing fervor of an official theme song for a World Cup or Summer Olympics — an ideal repository for soaring choruses and generic lyrical uplift. “Hollywood Tonight,” from 2007, feels leaner and more urgent, crackling with Jackson’s trademark percussive shuffle and pop. The gospel-tinged bromide ”Keep Your Head Up” offers a well-intentioned but somewhat soggy lead-in to the feathery, sweet-toned swoon of “(I Like) The Way You Love Me.” Window-smashing theatrics juxtapose with airy, danceable coos and a rat-a-tat 50 Cent guest spot on ”Monster” (the beast in question, it turns out, is fame).
”Breaking News” delivers Jackson’s now-requisite anti-tabloid screed, albeit with satisfyingly melodic gall, while ”(I Can’t Make It) Another Day,” featuring Lenny Kravitz and Dave Grohl, galvanizes him further, yielding the album’s most genuinely fierce moment. The propulsive synths and vocodered trills on the otherwise intriguing ”Behind the Mask” seem oddly dated by sax flourishes — though perhaps that makes it a good companion to the lilting closer ”Much Too Soon,” an actual relic of the early ’80s (the track dates back to his “Thriller” days).
As musical epitaphs go, “Michael” is a solid album, arguably stronger than “Invincible” and certainly no great affront to his name. But it can be hard to listen and not wonder what he would have done differently — or if he would have wanted us to hear it at all. B