If there was an award for “most unsettling album of 2014”, Xscape definitely would’ve taken it. It’s not that posthumous albums have to be creepy, but when they involve a big-selling artist, they usually just turn out that way. Michael Jackson’s death put three of his albums on the year’s top ten charts, and as a result, in spite of crumbling conditions in the music industry, Sony decided to award their biggest contract ever to a corpse, giving $250 million in a ten-album deal that inevitably was to include several discs of reworked songs from the vaults. I mean really, starting with Off the Wall, Jackson really only completed six studio albums in his life. But the rumours were always there; every producer and engineer he worked with insisted that Jackson’s work ethic was impeccable, that he was always in the studio, writing, recording, doing vocal takes until three in the morning…that there were something like “a hundred” unreleased songs that he had written and partially recorded. And the kicker was always, “some of this stuff is really good”.
Anyway, the first such posthumous album was simply called Michael, and I think it realized a lot of people’s fears about the thing – there was a ghastly quality among all the songs, many of which featured outside guests to “finish” what MJ had started, and overall it was unclear exactly how much treatment they had to do to Jackson’s voice in order to get something workable. On some of the tracks (including “Breaking News”, the lead single), there was the question of whether or not we were even hearing Jackson at all – the shady nature of those recordings led many to believe that it was in fact an imposter, a view supported by an independent musicologist brought in for a class action lawsuit. Maybe the Michael Jackson vaults weren’t as robust as we were led to believe? Either way, Michael was a critical flop. I would’ve loved to hear how the cover of YMO’s “Behind the Mask” would’ve sounded if it was recorded in the Thriller-era, but the version we get here, with a big New Jack Swing beat and unnecessary guest vocals certainly isn’t it, and that problem is emblematic of the album as a whole.
If there’s one thing you can say about Michael, it’s that for better or worse, it’s a mess of producers and guest spots and disparate ideas that resemble what a real Michael Jackson album circa 2010 might’ve sounded like. All things considered, it’s more tribute than reality, especially given the title and cover art. On Xscape, there’s a sense of exhuming the dead; there’s an undeniable creepiness to that album art, with Jackson dressed like a space alien (the “X” and “P” in the album title even look like antennas!), with a cone around his neck that all-too convieniently covers all the way up to his busted-up nose. The photo is airbrushed to oblivion, looking perhaps like an extremely photoshopped photo of the corpse. On Michael, the cover was clearly a tribute; a convoluted, cluttered mural with pieces of the man’s entire career, the center being a composite of all of MJ’s looks in one. It’s the sort of tribute that Michael himself may have enjoyed, running close to the art for his Dangerous album. On Xscape, you get a totally new Michael Jackson, a new look that’s just ridiculous and off-putting enough that we can imagine a 54-year old Michael Jackson going for it.
The creepiest part of Xscape is that it’s really not bad – while the singles on Michael disappeared quickly, “Love Never Felt So Good” and “Slave to the Rhythm” were inxscapeable last year. Certainly the album has its issues; it’s a bit too boom-bap modern, the dynamic range is awful, and you can understand why MJ left some of these songs unfinished. But it’s a decent album – better than any of his post-Dangerous releases, and almost certainly better than what Jackson himself would’ve come up with in 2014. I think if you really look back on Jackson’s career and ponder why the man with unlimited money, connections, and talent wound up producing such mediocre albums, you have to come back to MJ’s self-defensive streak, the way he felt every damn song he did needed to be bigger and angrier and ultimately no fun at all. That balance worked well on Dangerous, but after that things got dire quick – long albums with some brilliant parts (“Stranger in Moscow” from HIStory is almost certainly one of his very greatest) but otherwise were a lot of ideas that flat out didn’t work, or missed the point entirely, as though “We Are the World” was the pinnacle of the man’s existence.
“Love Never Felt So Good”, the opening track on Xscape, is easily the most significant tune of MJ’s post-mortem career. Originally recorded back in 1983, it gives us a glimpse back to the Michael Jackson that everyone fell in love with; here, given full-on Off the Wall-style orchestration, it’s a pure shot of the smooth, fun-loving Michael Jackson, the same one that brought us “Blame it on the Boogie” and “Rock With You”, the guy who seemed to leave us for good after “The Way You Make-a Me Feel”. This is the kind of material we were all hoping we’d wind up getting, but sadly there isn’t a whole lot of that in the vault. Half of Xscape is made up of songs that didn’t make the cut for Invincible, not exactly MJ’s high watermark.
On one hand, Xscape is a mess, with a total of 14 producers credited (!), including Jackson himself. Jackson’s vocals pop all over the place; rather than build around what they had, the producers filled in the blanks themselves by taking bits from other MJ songs, or manipulating the audio to form rhythm tracks that Jackson himself probably wouldn’t have used. So the thing is full of Michael’s yelps and screams, amped up and cranked to the breaking point. It’s a level of rhythmic intensity that Jackson never really attempted outside of “Jam”. But that’s where it’s at here – outside of trying to make a statement with any of these songs, this bundle of producers and engineers instead focus on the grooves and the hooks. It’s overproduced but not overarranged; unlike, say, the songs that actually made Invincible, everything here is memorable and concise – hell, the “standard” album doesn’t even hit the 35-minute mark. That said, the production here is often so oppressive and up-to-the-minute that it distracts from the enjoyment. Many of these tunes have the sort of beat-crazy arrangements that make it sound like the producers didn’t trust the material to stand on its own. It’s as if they took the original demos and kept yelling “LOUDER!!” “MORE JACKO!!” until you get the processed slabs of concentrated floor-filler that you have here.
That’s really the rub here, for better or worse; this all-star supergroup of producers never will let you forget that THIS IS MICHAEL JACKSON. While you may expect a posthumous album to play up the collaborators more in order to reduce the number of blanks you have to fill in, Xscape fills in the missing Michael Jackson with more Michael Jackson, then sprinkles an extra helping of Michael Jackson over the top. Some tunes sample MJ’s existing work – “Leave Me Alone” on “A Place With No Name”, vocals from “Workin’ Day and Night” and “You Rock My World” were inserted to patch up some areas, and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” cops the feel of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. Of course there’s a ghoulish quality to all of this; “it’s what Michael Jackson would have wanted”, LA Reid would be quoted as saying, but who really knows what the man himself was planning to do with these songs, if anything? There wasn’t another album in the works, and even if there was, it’s doubtful that any of these songs would have appeared. The nine-year period following Invincible up until his death is not represented anywhere.
To help promote the album, a hologram was created to perform “Slave to the Rhythm” at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards. First off, let me say that this is quite a technical marvel. It can’t be easy to create those things out of a real performance, so making a singer appear as though he’s doing a song he never actually performed must be an insane amount of work, and I have a lot of respect for those who made it happen. But within them comes that ghoulish quality; while it’s often said that dying was the best career move that Michael Jackson could have made, there’s something unsettling about Michael Jackson taking the goodwill earned from his death and parlaying that into more hit singles, complete with live performances at high-profile events. Much was made about Jacko becoming the first solo artist to have Top Ten hits in five separate decades, though if you ask me there’s a pretty freakin’ big asterisk next to that record, right alongside all those charts that’ll tell you how Wii Sports is the greatest selling console game of all-time without mentioning that it only happened because they packaged it with the system.
All this was fairly easy to ignore with Michael, since it wasn’t very good anyway, and if nothing else allowed us to hurl more shit at the music industry. We get cynical enough about them abusing their living recording artists, but what of the dead ones? To be fair, Jackson was something like half a billion dollars in debt when he died, so you can’t fault Sony too much for trying to cash-in. Someone’s gotta pay for all those rollercoasters and monkey accessories. But Xscape is different – sure, it’s got several faults, and this isn’t exactly Jackson’s A-material, but it’s still the good Michael, and Xscape is an album that I’m glad exists. Though it’s not often singled out, I do think “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” is a helluva track, the sort of relentless techno-infused jam that few can pull off. Even the weaker material sorta works – “Place With No Name”, a half-cover of America’s “Horse With No Name” may feature some of the worst lyrics that MJ’s ever penned, but it’s still upbeat, snappy, and full of hooks, which is exactly what everyone really wanted out of Michael Jackson all along.
So this is 2014 Michael Jackson; in the middle of a historic record contract, scoring hit singles, breaking sales records, playing live again, and showing off his brand-new new space alien look, all with the benefit of his death wiping the slate clean. This isn’t a tribute; it’s straight-up necromancy. When I first heard Xscape, my impression was that it was probably a better album than anything a live Michael Jackson would’ve come up with, and relistening to it along with HIStory and Invincible I still feel that it’s true. A new Michael Jackson album this late in the game would probably be incredibly long and filled with embarrassing collaborations, not to mention how angry and bitter it probably would have been – his personal life always seemed to spill onto the records that way. You know how they say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”? Well, for Michael Jackson it really was all bad publicity, ever since he erected that giant statue at least.
In the end I think that ambiguity still gets him off the hook. At best, Michael Jackson was a very strange man who was so out of touch with reality that it made him easy to take advantage of. At worst, he was a monster who endangered and ruined the lives of children. You make the call! When you look at other guys who found themselves in this spot last year, such as Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, there always seemed to be those testimonials, those hundreds of accounts of “this guy was always manipulative and narcissistic, and everyone knew it”. With Michael Jackson most of those testimonials were about the guy just being a really weird dude, which does give that shadow of doubt. If you liked Jacko, there was just enough there to make it plausible that he wasn’t guilty, if you wanted to believe it. And that right there is going to be the difference between the postmortem lives of Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby. If Cosby died in 2013, there would be a Cosby Show marathon on TV Land so long it may still be running today. If he dies in 2015, we’re going to try our best to sweep him under the rug, a fitting tribute to the man who used his position to take advantage of so many women. But I digress.
Whether or not you think Michael Jackson, the man who racked up a half-billion dollars in debt and undoubtably was doing something inappropriate with children deserves it is up to you. But there is something very wrong about raiding a guy’s vaults under the guise of “it’s what he would have wanted”, even though all of these songs were rejected by Jackson himself at some point, even though none of them ever were slated to be released at all, even though there is no way in hell a live Michael Jackson could’ve gotten away with a song called “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”. It’s an album I feel weird about enjoying, as it makes me feel complicit in some sort of grave robbing. How can we ever say with a straight face “it’s what he would have wanted” when the result just so happens to give millions of dollars to a giant corporation? It’s one thing if MJ had something in the can, but here you instead have tunes like “Loving You”, a pleasant but insubstantial ballad recorded during the Bad era that Jackson likely just forgot about. It all feels like a sinister thing to do to a man who tried (and failed) so hard to control his public image; regardless of how you feel about his artistic decisions, he didn’t release only six albums in thirty years because that’s all he had in him. From Bad until his death – that’s twenty years, by the way – he made it clear that he just wanted to be left alone, to be away from the constant circus that was the life of Michael Jackson (to be fair, he brought a lot of that upon himself). If we couldn’t honor that wish during his life, what chance was there for his death?