Spanning 35 years of a career that really merits the adjective ‘extraordinary’, this is more than just another hits box. Among the 57 tracks are 13 previously unreleased, other rarities, and a DVD of a 1992 Bucharest concert. Those are the facts. The rest: well, you couldn’t make it up, could you? A Star Is Born meets Hollywood Babylon; Shirley Temple meets Fatty Arbuckle; with world domination, a credibility collapse to match Blair’s, and, somewhere in there, The Wiz. Jackson’s stock has plummeted of late. Aware that the King Of Pop pitch is tired and inaccurate, Sony present this archive with a grasping for artistic kudos, a valid cry that he makes (made?) some incredibly vital music. Nelson George’s essay urges upon us Michael’s authenticity as soul man and pioneer. “Just as he learnt from Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson and James Brown, so he’s educated R Kelly, Usher, Justin Timberlake and countless others, with Thriller as the textbook.”
George’s sincerity is evident, but overlooks that since his solo heyday?Bad was as great as Thriller, and Off The Wall was no slouch?Jackson’s quality control has been wayward. He turned down the songs that made Timberlake a star, and his ballads (from the boy who made “Got To Be There”) have been execrably overblown. His funk retains flair: “Blood On The Dancefloor”was underrated, and the ’90s outtakes are juicy. But he can’t reach past the parodied persona now, and neither can we.
Still, there’s a dazzling array of near-genius here. When he’s on it, the breaths, hiccups and falsetto “wee-hee”s not only start something (a terpsichorean bonfire) but see it through. While there’s much left off (“Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Earth Song”), and one wonders why the stodgy collaborations with McCartney and Jagger merited inclusion, Jackson’s heights are euphoric, Esperanto poetry. “Billie Jean”, “Don’t Stop”, “The Way You Make Me Feel”, “The Man In The Mirror”and maybe 10 more could not sound any better, from whipcrack to whoop, from walking bass to Quincy Jones’filigreed kitchen-sink production.
Among the collector’s items here are loose, lean demos (a rootsy “Shake Your Body”, a sketchy “P.Y.T.”) and ’80s offcuts “Scared Of The Moon”(Broadway bombast) and “We Are Here To Change The World”(burbling, of-their-era, sci-fi movie synths). The stuff from the ’90s is remarkable, begging the question of why he stashed it away. “In The Back.” is a dark, slow-burn groove; “Beautiful Girl”a dipping, swaying love song; “The Way You Love Me” is the heir to “Just My Imagination”, no less. Mind you, “Monkey Business”, from ’89, features Bubbles the chimp on backing noises. No, really. Even Michael realised that’d have folks saying he was bananas. Thing is, it’s more “Sexual Healing”than “Funky Gibbon”, and therefore unusually involving.
A gifted vessel rather than a visionary, he’ll never recapture his golden run now, but for a spell there he was in the zone like few before or since, and full of fire.