Thursday, June 18, 2009
J - Michael Jackson - "Off the Wall"
Whew…it took a couple of days to get the stink of patchouli from the steaming pile of hippie crap called the Incredible String Band off of my turntable long enough to change records, where it was replaced by the sweet sweet smell of a 21 year old Michael Jackson funkin’ it up somethin’ fierce. Yet it’s not as good as I’d hoped.
(During this note, I will not be reviewing his status as an unconvicted child molester. He is innocent until proven guilty, and, luckily for him, he had enough money to throw around to keep this a moot issue. The world has always had its fair share of creeps, sickos, and perverts – the entertainment arena has never cornered the market on them. Can artistic milestones sometimes trump moral depravity? Yup. History has shown us that time does separate the art from the fart. Can Michael hope for a future where his music is more resonant than his freakishness? Nope. Because even “Thriller”, as great a record as it is, isn’t really all that. “The Girl is Mine” is NOT art.)
As you may have guessed, my opinion of Michael Jackson as an entertainer isn’t super high. There are a few things that he deserves huge amounts of credit (or blame) for: certainly defining music video; for creating, controlling, and manipulating a public persona that was unparalleled; and, through a combination of talent, drive, and ambition, being the catalyst that broke open the music world of the 80’s, leading to popular music and culture becoming more racially diverse than ever before. Michael did some great music prior to “adulthood” (because who doesn’t like the Jackson 5? Let me re-state the question: who doesn’t like the Jackson 5 songs sung by Michael?) and did some fine work after “Michael Jackson the myth” started crumbling (post-“Dangerous” – though I will always question the dubious distinction of having MacCauley Culkin strike a gangsta pose in the “Black and White” video), but his career as a mega-star will always be defined by 2 records – “Thriller” and “Bad” – which spanned an 8 year period. Not a whole lot of productivity in 8 years really (and I don’t include the Jacksons reunion albums or things like “We Are the World”, which together took him about 10 minutes of inspiration.)
“Off the Wall” is his first full exhale of creative control, and it’s very good. Michael’s performances are definitely terrific – his voice is extremely nimble and expressive, and it sounds like he’s having a blast with this material. As well it should, because this is a dance record first and foremost. The songs are primarily either about dancing (“Get on the Floor”, “Burn This Disco Out”), use dance metaphors (“Rock with You”, “Off the Wall”) or are get-it-on tunes with a dance floor beat (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”, “Working Day and Night”). Side One is a nonstop funk fest, and is fully enjoyable; Michael gets extra credit for writing 3 of the 4 songs, including the stone classic “Don’t Stop…”. This is not only the best song on the record, but one of the true classics of R&B, and is, in my opinion, only matched in his career by “Wanna Be Starting Something”. In fact, I think the weakest part of this record is the material on side two written by the proven pop songwriters: neither Carole Bayer Sager, Stevie Wonder, or Paul McCartney (ESPECIALLY Paul McCartney’s) contributions hold a candle to either Michael or Rod Temperton’s compositions. The only exception to this is the heartbreaker “She’s Out of My Life” written by some guy named Tom Bahler. (Sorry, Paulie, that song (and the hankie-wringing performance Michael delivers) blows away ANYTHING you did in the 80’s or 90’s. “Biker Like an Icon”, indeed.)
That said, I kinda expected to like this record a lot more. Seeing as I prefer the 70’s Michael to the 80’s and beyond freak, I thought this would be a minor masterpiece that I could groove to while wondering what the hell went wrong. (“Thriller” is a fantastic record, but as music, it wasn’t good enough on its own to create the phenomenon that eventually unraveled his personal and professional life. Of course, neither was “Meet the Beatles”.) It’s just that the material is not quite there yet. The thing about “Thriller” was that it had such amazing crossover success: “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, “Human Nature” and the appalling “The Girl is Mine” are all VERY different songs in different styles, yet all of them nail the sound they were going for perfectly. Though it also nails ITS sound, “Off the Wall” really only has one.
But it’s not fair to compare these two albums in that way, as they are so different. So fine, I won’t anymore. (And, um..regarding the picture of the album above...that's a camera flash. The actual front cover does not feature his glowing crotch.)
VERDICT: side one is excellent, side two is spotty with only one real gem. A very good dance record. And now I’m going to change records and listen to “Wanna Be Starting Something” again.
VIDEO: aw HELL YEAH!!!!