CD Review Published in Sen magazine Los Angeles June 95

Michael Jackson History - Past, Present and Future Book 1

It's hard to review a Michael Jackson album without reviewing Michael Jackson the persona. For several weeks now, we have been immersed in a media frenzy that, as Sony Music is hoping, will continue through Christmas of '96. This included an excruciatingly disturbing televised "interview" with the evasive Michael and Lisa Marie Presley- Jackson that revealed nothing of the mysterious and yet publicity hungry couple, beyond that they do appear well suited for each other, even if Lisa seemed to be babysitting the intense, child-like Michael.

Now there is the music, which is ultimately why we are here. History begins with a full cd retrospective including some of Michael's most obvious hits, digitally remastered and available together for the first time, which would be a substantial event in itself. "Billie Jean" opens the album, and with its performance on the Motown 25th Anniversary special, is the song that made Michael Jackson a superstar, and it still has an extraordinary, distinctive sound. While at that time, the subject of wrongful accusation seemed rather innocuous, a theme is introduced that continues with increasing intensity for the remainder of the double cd set.

It is hard to resist the candid innocence and startling energy of this material; a shy, mumbling introduction that explodes into the exuberance of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough", the smoothness and natural suggestion "I wanna Rock With You, all night, dance you into day", the percolating free-form rhythm masking the lyrical content of "someone's always trying to start my baby crying, talking stealing spying, you just Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", and what a groove, what a style! The MTV success and subsequent cultural saturation of videos like "Thriller" and "Beat It" assuredly diminished attention from the music itself, and while it is difficult to listen without conjuring corresponding visual images, this is indeed pop music at its pinnacle. How else could one explain the monstrous popularity of these songs and this artist?

Although the occasional saccharine mid-tempo ballad is sprinkled in the mix ("Heal the World", however well-intentioned, and, particularly "The Girl Is Mine" are hardly ground-breaking), Michael's strengths shine with the instinctive sharpness of "Man in the Mirror" ("If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change"), the infectious, percussive "Bad", the whimsical shuffle of "The Way You Make Me Feel" , and, despite it's annoying one minute McCauley Culkin video soundtrack intro, the funky, sparkling energy of "Black or White".

The emotional center of the Off the Wall album, and perhaps this album, however, occurs as Michael admits "Damned indecision and cursed pride, I kept my love for her locked deep inside, and it cuts like a knife, She's Out of My Life", his silky voice cracking with passion. It is perhaps this emotional simplicity, this honesty, that is Michael's Achilles Heel (shockingly obvious in interviews), but it is also his power.

Through this period, however, Michael Jackson (at least in, if not through the media, but surely because of the media) became something beyond human, his enormous success forcing him to contort his lifestyle and, for whatever reasons, he became a caricature, or at minimum a character from his videos.

History continues on disc two, opening with a distorted electric buzz, a scream and a crash, then the shatter of glass (or his image?) as the pulsative bracing rhythm races through. Once again, the startling and distinct video images of Michael (and in this case, also his sister Janet) are indelibly associated with the music, but the message of this caper is certainly evident, "Stop pressuring me, you make me want to Scream". This is the Michael Jackson that became a superstar, not the resultant media monster. If you listen, you can understand him, and it's hard to ignore these pleas, and to not to feel compassion.

Immediately following this extraordinary aural assault we hear young children skipping and chanting, "All I wanna say is that They Don't Really Care About Us", then voices, "Don't worry what people say, we know the truth, enough is enough of this garbage." If Michael is protective and evasive during interviews and in public, his feelings are plainly revealed in his lyrics. This album is clearly a response to the frustrations of the past few years, and is an extremely personal disclosure; heartening, if not surprising in its self-awareness.

Tell me what has become of my life,
I have a wife and two children who love me
I am a victim of police brutality, now
I'm tired of being a victim of hate
You’re raping me of my pride for god's sake
I look to heaven to fulfill its prophecy, set me free.

"Stranger in Moscow" follows, beginning with the soft patter of rainfall as the novel vocal percussion starts in and a warm, tender fullness surrounds you. "How does it feel when you're alone and you're cold inside," he asks soothingly.

The lyrics are enchanting, the themes are personal, the wishes universal; pleas for the environment ("Earth Song"), spiritual enlightenment ("Life: strive for it, kill for it, die for it... you don't care, you would do anything for Money.") and the occasional reassuring, syrupy ballad ("You Are Not Alone"). The music, though, is outstanding, and is the key. This record simply has an amazing, original sound. You have heard this nowhere before, and the result is perhaps the most astonishing, innovative music you will hear for awhile, maybe not until the next Michael Jackson album.

Rod Reynolds

© 1995 The Art Dept Los Angeles

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