Jackson's insistence on grasping for a crown nobody has otherwise awarded him makes him seem desperate and out of touch— two things no true pop king should ever be.

I'm never quite sure what to say

about Michael Jackson. Certainly, most everything that can be said has already been said about Jackson, arguably the greatest living pop performer in the world. Does that make him the king of pop? Probably. But, Jackson's insistence on grasping for a crown nobody has otherwise awarded him makes him seem desperate and out of touch— two things no true pop king should ever be. There may actually be bigger Michael Jackson fans out there than me, but darned few of them, I'd imagine. I'm a guy who has pardoned The Gloved One of a great many sins (most notably the Sin of Bad Judgment for keeping company with a young boy for more than a month, and then the Sin of Worse Judgment for paying a reported $20 million in hush money to avoid criminal prosecution).

I'll naively hold judgment over whether or not the man is a child molester. Though the evidence against him looks bleak, the one thing even his detractors can say in Jackson's defense is he is, quite literally, like no other human being on this planet. He is, in the opinion of many people who have met him, completely capable of playing Michael's Tree House with pubescent boys with the darker impulses of a man in his 40's banished to never Neverland.

So, tabling that discussion for the now, there are a couple things that really bother me about the media coverage of Jackson. Sure, it's great fun to poke at his eccentricities, and, surely, let's string him up by his often-grabbed privates if the boy-fondling charges are true. But what is almost never, to my observation, discussed is just how good a singer this man is.

A casual spin of his re-mastered solo projects for Epic: Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad and Dangerous yields, for me, a simple observation: with each successive album, Jackson's singing continues to improve. He has one of the most distinctive voices on the planet, one not easily or readily emulated (or the record companies would have done so eons ago). He has more money than Osama, and never has to work a day in his life. But his singing, the actual craft of it, continues to improve with each release. He's actually working on it, concerned about his craft, about his chops.

On the deservedly lambasted HIStory, Jackson included a sappy Disney-esque whiner called Childhood, wherein he bemoans, Have you seen my childhood? Have you seen a world I've never known... Fodder for the track skip button until you realize the man employs a Streisand level of sheer mastery of vocal technique on that cut. Jackson effortlessly sails into broad fortissimo grandeur before reducing himself to wafer-thin fragility and back again. Converting full voice into head tones and an unparalleled (and far too rarely employed) falsetto. Childhood is not a song Jackson was capable of during Off The Wall, and it is a fair indicator of the commitment to— no— obsession with— quality that consumes Jackson.

Regrettably, Jackson's move away from Quincy Jones— and one of the two invisible men who actually created the creature that now visits us yet again— has, with each new project, revealed a Jackson who is increasingly out of touch with the fans he proposes to dazzle and amaze.

The first thing you notice about Invincible, Jackson's first new record in a great while, is Michael appears to have a new nose. No longer pointed up and sharpened into a stabbing instrument, Jackson's nose on the album cover (almost certainly an artistic invention) appears normal, human, and almost... well.. bulbous. It's a happy nose. A mortal nose. A What, me worry? nose. On the cover, Jackson's face looks remarkably human, no longer the ghoul we've caught fleeting and horrifying glimpses of on the arm of Liz Taylor (below). He looks happy and a bit mischievous and we think, Oh, hey— he's back to normal.

Look at it. No eyeliner. No lipstick. His eyes repaired to a kindly, boyish, almond shape. His ghostly pallor mitigated by the faux-Warhol single color design. He looks great. He looks like the happy boy we haven't seen since the jacket cover of Thriller. And, it is our first hint that we're being manipulated. Jackson (or Sony, or both) wants us to believe it's the good ol' days. In fact, much of Invincible sounds like Off The Wall Updated To Circa 1997. They (Jackson/Sony) are banking on a certain level of nostalgia for a friendly guy who's now a friendly ghost if not a friendly fiend.

To be kind, it is an idealized face. It may be, perhaps, what Jackson has been aiming for with all that surgery. Had he hit the mark, well, he'd be a lot less scary. And my curmudgeon's rant would be more about his (apparent) efforts to rid himself of his African American features. Jackson, in the pasty flesh (below, in full creep-out pose with a young fan), looks nothing whatsoever like the album's cover. However, in that context, the cover makes perfect sense. It's a perfect metaphor that sums up the work lurking beneath it.

Invincible disappoints only because, literally, nothing the man could possibly do would live up to the expectation his long absence has created. We want the visceral thrill of the Coke bottle cacophony of Don't Stop Till You Get Enough, the instant I Love This Song arousal of Leon Ndugu Chancellor's monstrous kick-snare-kick-snare-kick-snare into Greg Phillinges and Louis Johnson's looping bosa nova bass of Billie Jean. Or at least the complexity of Bad, an endeavor far more sophisticated than the taste the silly title track and video left in our mouths. Or Teddy Riley's overwhelming body slam of Jam, a song Jackson could have let run another eight minutes with no complaint from me. Riley mixed Jackson so far into the back it was hard to tell he was even singing— the strategy, I assume, being to force us to turn the music up. Worked for me, anyway.

The two invisible men from Jackson's heyday were engineer Bruce Swedien, who would often record as many as 100 (yes, 100) tracks, using various musicians, and assemble a thick, Phil Spector-ish wall of sound that gave Jackson's work a uniquely meaty feel (and still does- Swedien is Jackson's engineer).

The other invisible man was a guy named Rod Temperton. Temperton— a man most people have never seen, so he could be, like, at the supermarket buying Cheerios and you'd never know— is the killer writer of such mega hits as Heatwave's Always And Forever, James “How'd HE Ever Get This Deal?” Ingram's ubiquitous monster hit Just Once, and hundreds of other major pop hits.

Temperton wrote Rock With You, and several other cuts from Off The Wall. He wrote Thriller, PYT, The Girl Is Mine and several other hits off of Thriller and Bad. But, when Jackson (from all appearances) decided he didn't need Quincy anymore, he may also have decided he didn't need Temperton, his hit machine, anymore. Jackson would be, chiefly, his own songwriter. And the results speak for themselves.

By the time it left the charts in 1992, Dangerous, Jackson's New Jack Swing flight from Neverland, sold around six million copies domestically, and was generally regarded as a failure for Jackson. How six million copies could possibly be a failure is one of the many odd things about this odd entertainer, that he is judged by a whole other standard of success. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide said, “[Dangerous] suffers from CD-era ailments of the early '90s, such as its overly long running time and its deadening Q Sound production, which sounds like somebody forgot to take the Surround Sound button off." HIStory, which cost more than a million to produce, sounded like a garage demo (albeit a garage demo engineered by the marvelous Swedien), and nothing on it bore any resemblance to popular music of the day (including, sadly, the archival stuff, which does not hold up well). HIStory sold less than three million copies domestically (of an expensive double album which was, largely, not discounted by retailers). Both Dangerous (27 million worldwide to date) and HIStory (15 million) did much better in worldwide sales, but here at home Jackson appeared to be foundering.

Jackson followed that by descending even farther into obscurity with the remix album Blood On The Dance Floor, which apparently stalled somewhere between one and two million copies. During HIStory's heyday, I actually collected a number of remixes as Jackson wore out the old “drop as many singles as you can” strategy from Thriller. Each single had several remixes on them, and, for the most part, the remixes were far more interesting than what Jackson had included on HIStory. So, I was shocked and amazed to discover that, for Blood... , Jackson chose the utterly worst and dumbest and least inventive of the dozens of remixes available. Gone were the Dr. Dre-inspired re-productions (they were elaborate re-dos, keeping, mainly, Jackson's original vocal track and not much more), in favor of noisy, clanking rave-style head banger stuff. And the “new” material included in Blood... sounded like what it likely was— self-indulgent demos he'd had piled in his closet.

Meanwhile, in 1998, Jackson announced a new album with his brothers, titled J5, to be released on his MJJ vanity label through Sony Music. The album never appeared. And Forbes Magazine did a big piece questioning Michael's claims of a $100 million annual income, sparking rumors of financial troubles for a man who continues to live as though he were making $25 million a year, whether he actually does or not. There were the odd marriages to Elvis' daughter and to the blatant rent-a-womb Debbie Rowe, who apparently produced offspring for Jackson for a price and then vanished into the ether. Every time we saw him, the nose looked even more bizarre. Janet told Rolling Stone and Vibe that she hadn't spoken to Jackson in years (giving creed to the rumor of a falling out between them when Jackson's first pass at the mix to Scream pushed little sis way in back. The mix was corrected for the album release). The music business went on, leaving Jackson as a fond memory.

The king was dead. Long live the king. So, when I heard rumors of Jackson spending months in the studio with whiz kid Rodney Jerkins, I saw a glimmer of hope. Just a glimmer, mind you, because Jerkins, as talented as he is, is last year's news. Even the year before. With his borrowed Timbaland syncopated turn-run-turn again rhythms and some truly inspired arrangements, Jerkins could, at least, breathe some new life into the Old Glove.

That is, if Jackson would actually let him. From these offerings, I'd guess Michael's heavy hand was in here, possibly presenting Jerkins with demos for Jerkins to labor, workmanlike, over. Jerkins beats a dead horse through Unbreakable, Invincible, and Threatened, three expressions of the same clank-clank-Here Comes The Big Robot riff. Jackson apparently handcuffs Jerkins to prevent the young producer from putting in any of his slick, unexpected turnarounds, the kinds of things that made Toni Braxton's last album actually listenable.

Here, Jerkins trudges dutifully along through extremely mechanical marching songs loaded with the kind of pubescent, Sony PlayStation sound effects that wear on the nerves of listeners over the age of twelve (while, ironically, making a case for Jackson's innocence). These tunes, along with Heartbreaker, which comes closest to sounding like something Jerkins might have actually inspired, are quite unlistenable. They, literally, give you the same headache you get on Saturday morning when the kids play their cartoons too loud.

And maybe that's it: we want an album. We've grown up, but Jackson hasn't. And Jackson is so out of touch with reality, he thinks this bang-BUZZ-ZAPP!! crap is what kids are listening to now. They're not. They're listening to Rodney Jerkins. It's a shame Jackson, apparently, wasn't.

The only Jerkins-produced song that actually sounds like he had any real creative input is the single, You Rock My World, a fun little retro bit of business perhaps deliberately meant to evoke a kind of Rock With You meets Billie Jean vibe. A head-nodding take your time easy does it pleasantry whose only fault is it is lyrically uncompelling, Jackson and Jerkins apparently lacking ether the skill or the courage to invest the song with lyrics that will live in our hearts beyond the moment.

The odd white knight is Teddy Riley, who actually produces a fair amount of this record, while not getting a tenth of the publicity Jerkins enjoys. Riley rides to the rescue for some quiet moments away from the video arcade. Heaven Can Wait is a completely unexpected song. Not unexpected from Jackson, as we appreciate his softer balladeer on occasion, but unexpected from a man of such mongrel impulses as Guy's Teddy Riley. This is the man who dropped his drum machine on Jackson's head all over Dangerous, blending Jackson into just another brick in his wall of sound. But here, on the lushly disarming Heaven... we see a Riley who is, perhaps, in the process of growing up. He channels Quincy and even approaches the genius of Temperton and, for a moment or two, we see a flash of the old glory of a Jackson three noses ago. Don't Walk Away is in similar vein, though not quite as memorable. Michael hiccups and gulps his way through some sappy laundry list of fears and complaints. It's just difficult to care because (a) the guy's rich and (b) this sounds so formulaic. It's emotion-on-cue, She's Out Of My Life Part 6.

The jewel, here— the song I can't stop playing— is the delicious and hypnotic Whatever Happens, the Unexpected Mr. Riley teaming Jackson with a hearty side-order of Carlos Santana to evoke a tragic love lost. A primer in melancholy, you can just smell autumn in the air as leaves smack you on the head, reminding you of how good love can be and, consequently, how unbearable the pain of love lost. The premise is both ghostly and ghastly, a sweetly ironic I Told You So that provides no comfort and no refuge for us poor dumb bastards who took a wrong turn somewhere along some road. The song is as frightening a moment as Jackson has ever given us, a hint of evil that shivers the timbers and reminds us of the raw power this man, yes, here he's a man, commands. It's a fine, grown-up piece of music, a little ounce of creative integrity and courage that's better than anything on the last three albums Jackson's imposed on us. The song drags you along on this glorious Stevie Wonder-inspired bend, this looping hook that's just so good you can't help but sing along, for five minutes shorter than it needed to be. The great thing about Stevie is, he'll work a song like Whatever Happens until he's good and ready to let go. Stevie would have wound this one out to seven minutes or longer, and this one really needed and deserved it. Whatever Happens leaves you shell-shocked and exhausted and looking back over the CD booklet for answers that just aren't there. Teddy Riley did this to me? I just kept playing the tune over and over wondering why Michael won't give us an album of this stuff. This stuff competes with pretentious, pseudo-intellectuals like Sting and Bono. This stuff doesn't insult my intelligence with all the grade-school level bubblegum. Whatever Happens gives us a very grown up Peter Pan, the consequences of his life weighing heavily on him. It's the kind of album that could wipe everything else off the charts. But, saddest of all, it's not an album. It's only a song, buried deep in the track order. That this is all we get only compounds the blue mood this exquisitely crafted song lures us into.

Though lacking the genius of Whatever Happens, Butterflies, produced by Jackson and the brilliant and underrated Andre Harris, is nearly as good. Now, here's the guy Jackson should have done the whole album with. I'm not a fan of this post-80's Chinese menu approach to album production. I think you get a much more cohesive work, make a much clearer artistic statement, when one team helms the work from invocation to benediction.

Peculating without so much as a gulp over a thankfully spare arrangement built around an Off The Wall suitcase Fender Rhodes, Jackson's fiery baritone splinters into a disarmingly uninhibited falsetto (one of a very few unguarded moments, here) that utterly shatters my cynicism (no mean feat) and finds me cheering in my car as Michael Jackson, the real Michael Jackson, comes roaring back to life. He makes a much better case here, with Butterflies, as to why he's the boss than he does with the way beneath him if he's serious, way not clever enough if he's joking, braggadocio of Threatened. 

Other than R. Kelly's completely flaccid Cry, Butterflies is the only cut here that Michael apparently did not meddle with. which may explain why the song excels. Jerry Hey-inspired horn arrangements take us back to Off The Wall, but I forgive the cold calculation of the move because Off The Wall was the last (and, perhaps, only) mature piece of music Michael's done, and certainly his most cohesive artistic statement to date (if you hit “stop" before the final track, the embarrassing Burn This Disco Out). 

Butterflies evokes the far superior I Can't Help It, with a pinch of David Foster's canonical work on Earth, Wind & Fire's After The Love Is Gone, as well as a hit of EWF's patented syncopated stroll through the park swing. The understated basement demo arrangement is simply marvelous. Hallelujah. No clank-you. My one complaint is the song is thrilling more because of its context. I mean, it is a good song, for sure, and would be a huge hit of Jackson wasn't squandering his opportunity by pushing all the still-born robot dance stuff.

But, Butterflies enjoys a higher level of artistic favor in the larger context of the mediocrity here. Butterflies is nowhere near the league of I Can't Help It, and should not even be mentioned in the same paragraph as that legendary, seminal primer on pain After The Love Has Gone. Butterflies has me cheering, but it's cheering Pavarotti for clearing his throat before the curtain rises. A celebration of Michael getting off the couch.

And, perhaps that's just it. Invincible sounds like Jackson just didn't care very much about recording a new album. It sounds like he pulled a bunch of demos out of a closet, passed them out to Jerkins and Riley and then had Swedien do the vocals. Not only is there no blood on the dance floor, here, there's no blood on the tracks. Precious few kings become king, and virtually no king remains king, without some blood being shed. This is a nearly bloodless effort from a guy who might be beyond his true moment in time.

I joke with people, saying, I would have retired after Thriller. I mean it. Were I Jackson, I'd have never recorded another record. I'd have wowed them and walked off the stage for life, cementing my legend status. I'd have gone on to fill my days, I dunno, painting landscapes.

What I definitely would have sought to avoid, at all costs, was a slow descent into mere mortality. This record shows us feet of clay, or at least toes of clay, and it's a hard thing to accept. Not quite as bad as Ali-Holmes, but worse than Jordan-Wizards, which we largely accept as the big-dollar equivalent of a pickup game in Jordan's back yard. Nobody's taking Jordan seriously, but Jackson is, allegedly, still in the game; at 43 still trying to sing to 11 year-olds. Clank-BANG-ZAP!

It's an oddity that can easily become a freak show if not a car wreck, if Jackson-cum-Pan doesn't soon come to terms with the fact he is now following trends rather than setting them. There was nothing whatsoever on the radio or even in this life that sounded quite like the opening bars of Billie Jean. It was the shot heard around the world. It was a song that should not have worked, because we were all quite busy trying to find our way out of disco. But Jackson moonwalked in with a torch light and led us out of our darkness. But now he's chasing after “hot” producers and taking so very long to get the album out that, by the time it streets, it's last year's cool.

Break of Dawn is wholly unconvincing because I/we/everybody figures Jackson is either gay or asexual. And, honestly, I don't care if he is. Just don't ask me to buy the premise of songs like Break of Dawn, where we find Michael pleading for some yang and alternately boasting of his staying power and so forth. It's a bad idea to cast Peter Pan as the ultimate Macho seducer.

Speechless is more HIStory-style disconnect from our world. An inoffensive enough pap ballad. Ditto for You Are My Life, Babyface's contribution here and testament to his off-the-radar status. The Lost Children is, likewise, HIStory redux as Jackson self-produces, giving us some insight into just how completely lame his albums would be if he truly did everything himself. His musical taste seems to turn towards Disney soundtracks.

2000 Watts is a song from Marlon's demo, from all appearances. This song is not even remotely in Michael's league, and it's completely scary to read Riley's name on the producer credits here. Michael sounds interesting as a baritone, though. Beyond that, clank-BANG-ZAP! Jerkins further humiliates himself with Privacy, more clank-BANG-ZAP!  as Jackson whines and complains about how hard it is to be a big star, and Slash lethargically trundles through last year's Van Halen riffs. Chi-chING! goes the register.

There is no mention of his brothers or Janet in the credits. This is not an accident. Jackson scrutinizes everything in incredible detail, so it's difficult to believe this omission to be coincidental. There is, however, a glowing tribute to Quincy Jones, which intrigues me, as Jackson's made fairly little mention of the man who all but created him. He really needs Jones and Temperton back.

All told, Invincible won't be the final nail in Jackson's coffin, though it will likely take Babyface and Jerkins down a couple of pegs. Jerkins will have to hit a few out of the park to make up for this formulaic pap with his name on it. The Jerkins tracks are a real embarrassment to Jerkins, a young man of real genius and creativity, relegated to imitating a sound Teddy Riley designed for Jackson in 1992. Even Riley himself has moved on.

I'd think Jerkins would be a bit embarrassed by Invincible, but quotes appearing on MTV's web site have him either dutifully sacrificing his street cred or high on crack: “All the joints I did with Mike are pretty much grimy,” Jerkins said. “I did one ballad with him, but everything I did was pretty much grimy. I think this album, the stuff I did, is going to make the people dance.”

Not all the people. Not most of the people over age eleven, I'd imagine. As with his previous efforts, most everything on Invincible will require remixing (read: re-producing) by Junior Vasquez, Frankie Knuckles, Shep Pettibone, Naughty By Nature, Charles Roane, Hani Num, Track Masters, Dallas Austin, Love To Infinity and other dance floor Turks, guys Jackson should have called in the first place. You Rock My World is, from what I can tell, the only song on here that is, in fact, dance floor ready. Everything else needs to be stripped to its barest concept and then redressed in a leaner, more adult arrangement. I'd imagine re-mixers from coast to coast are hard at work removing all the Fox Kids! sound effects and breaking the spine of the more mechanical (read: Jerkins) tracks. Actually, I'd be curious to see what remixes Jerkins himself comes up with, once he's freed of Jackson's *coughs into fist* “co-producer” influence.

Invincible is such a disappointment to me because I'm still hoping, 18 years later, to be floored by this guy. This immensely talented guy, who, like it or not, owns the music biz in a way no one else does or perhaps can. Invincible is a wash. a C-minus project from an A+ entertainer. Six years and $10 million, and this is the best he can offer us?

And what is it about him, or what is it about us, that we actually care? As weird as the guy is, as controversial as his life is, despite all the nutty whys and wherefores of being the ever-paler Michael Jackson, there is one ugly truth none of us can escape: As Katherine Hepburn put it, “When he starts to dance, you just can't take your eyes off him.” And, it's true. The mark of a huge star is not units sold or even money made. It's the notion of the entire world noticing everything he does. The entire planet, on one level or another, is aware of the new album and curious about it.

Think about that. Four billion people with at least some passing interest in one man's nose. That, friends, is what makes him a star. And that's what keeps me hoping the next album will be better.

Christopher J. Priest
17 November 2001