On “Breaking News,” a snappish track on “Michael,” the first album released posthumously from Michael Jackson’s extensive archives, outtakes and potential discard pile, the singer laments the media obsession that defined his life.
“Everyone wanting a piece of Michael Jackson,” he sings in a voice that verges on an angry whisper. “He wants to write my obituary. You just want to read it again.” The context couldn’t be more ironic, considering that “Michael” often feels like a capitulation to those teeming masses who want one more shred of their beloved at any cost.
That’s not to say that “Michael” is embarrassing or damaging to the legacy of the biggest pop star of the last half-century or so. For the most part, it’s a considered artifact, both modern and nostalgic, by Teddy Riley, John McClain and Theron “Neff-U” Feemster, producers who have recently worked with Jackson.
The first song on the album, “Hold My Hand,” a duet with Akon, is a crisp anthem that fits in on the radio but doesn’t really blow anything open, despite its earnest attempts. “Keep Your Head Up” is a classic Jackson inspirational with a starry-eyed, gentle touch, not the full-blown Messiah mode of “Man in the Mirror” or “Heal the World.”
Maybe one of the sweetest, old-fashioned tracks, reminiscent of the aw-shucks romanticism of the Jackson 5, is “(I Like) The Way You Love Me,” which starts with a recorded fragment of Jackson describing the tempo and melody, and then a touch of beat-boxing. That modest snippet of Jackson’s notes imbues the song with the sense of an inspired musician who was still chasing his vision, seeking its most perfect incarnation.
But like some ghoulish postmodern joke on “Thriller,” “Michael” can’t help but feel like the work of zombie hands –- albeit tasteful zombie hands with ears finely attuned to the current whims and fancies of pop radio. Interestingly, questions abound about the album’s authenticity in certain spots: Sony issued a rebuttal to the accusation from some Jackson family members that his voice in “Breaking News” is an imitation.
We might never know if it’s fake or not, but the debate only underscores the fact that “Michael” is a product of many different creators that raises as many questions as it answers. We’ll never know what Jackson really would’ve done with these songs but this is the first of, no doubt, many guesses we’ll get that hopefully won’t yield diminishing returns. “Michael” reasserts that in death, he’s still a mystery, the ultimate phantasmagoria of pop music.