One telling moment on “Michael,” the first full album of posthumous Michael Jackson songs, is a snippet that might never have appeared during his life: a backstage glimpse of a performer who always strove to appear perfectly polished.
It must be an excerpt from a demo. At the beginning of “(I Like) The Way You Love Me,” Jackson’s staticky voice announces, “Hey, this is the tempo, and this is the melody.”
He sings a line, then switches to vocal beat-boxing. As the fully arranged track segues in, he reappears singing the melody, unchanged but now hi-fi: a studio version of the song that was in his head. Like “This Is It,” the 2009 documentary of rehearsals for his 50 comeback shows at the O2 arena in London — the ones he did not live to perform — it’s a chance to see the human being, the skillful and driven trouper, behind the superstar.
Is that how Jackson would have released the song had he lived? It is, of course, impossible to know. That question hangs over all of “Michael,” which is the first full album in a seven-year deal between the Jackson estate and Sony Music, reportedly worth $250 million, to put out previously unreleased material, probably video as well as music.
There have been reports that Jackson left behind hundreds of unreleased songs. Yet if “Michael” is any indication, his posthumous career will not be a matter of simply revealing what was in his archives, but also of transforming the material into a current commercial product: finishing songs he started while he was alive, guessing at his intentions and hoping to live up to his inspirations. He danced with zombies in the video for “Thriller”; now he returns, reanimated. “Michael,” frankly, is not a great start.
The album has just 10 songs and 42 minutes of music, a half-hour shorter than his previous CD-filling studio albums. Jackson had been working with hit making producers like Rodney Jerkins, Lady Gaga’s collaborator Red One and Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas; none of those tracks are on “Michael.”
The album doesn’t include “This Is It,” the song reconstituted for the documentary. It was, apparently to the surprise of the Jackson estate at the time, originally called “I Never Heard,” written by Jackson and Paul Anka and recorded by Safire. Nor does it unveil the long-rumored “Thriller” outtake “Don’t Be Messin’ Around,” or other songs attributed to Jackson that have surfaced online. What “Michael” does include is more reiteration than revelation. Nearly a year and a half after his death it comes across as a rush job — or just leftovers.
“Michael” isn’t shy about exploiting morbid thoughts. The first words on the album are “This life don’t last forever,” in “Hold My Hand,” an Akon song that gives Jackson about a verse and a half before Akon takes over lead vocals. Yet recording technology defies the finality of death, and now there’s always the possibility of another remix, another arrangement. Particularly for a musician like Jackson, whose solo albums were slowly and painstakingly worked over, posthumous releases occupy an eerie artistic limbo. They are treasured as new relics from a voice silenced forever. Yet they are also suspect because the artist cannot have the final say. Pop careers are built, among many other factors, on quality control, on a musician’s instincts about what to reveal to the world and what to hold back. And Jackson, who had not released a studio album since “Invincible” in 2001, was notoriously perfectionistic.
Now other people have sorted through the discards, the rough drafts, the fragments, the songs that could have interrupted the flow of an album, the songs that might be forgotten gems or embarrassing dead ends. And other people have decided how those songs will be heard.
Jackson has started a stunning posthumous career. He was the best-selling act of 2009, with sales of more than 8.2 million albums that year alone. And the bigger the performer, the more temptation there is to market the archives. Elvis Presley’s music has been reissued album by album, collected in volumes of hits, compiled chronologically, resifted by style and, lately, remixed as electronic anachronisms. Jimi Hendrix’s unreleased recordings have been alternately ravaged (with original backing musicians replaced by overdubbing) and respected. Tupac Shakur’s first four posthumous albums were million sellers.
Even a finished album can receive a posthumous remake; Yoko Ono has overseen “Double Fantasy Stripped Down,” a radically different 2010 mix of “Double Fantasy,” the album she shared with John Lennon in 1980. Less extreme revisions take place every time an old album is remastered. In the digital era authenticity is pretty much a lost cause.
“Michael” has already had one authenticity crisis. “Breaking News” — yet another song about media plotting to destroy him, with a rhythm track like a warmed-over “Smooth Criminal” — was released before the album, and some Jackson family members immediately asserted the lead vocal was an imitation. It is indeed odd to hear a pop singer repeating his own name: “Everybody wanting a piece of Michael Jackson/Reporters stalking the moves of Michael Jackson.” Sony Music produced a rebuttal with statements from many producers and musicians who had worked with Jackson, saying that the voice was indeed his.
In “(I Like) The Way You Love Me,” the vocals are unquestionably by Jackson, who released a different version — “The Way You Love Me,” now described by Sony as a demo — as bait for collectors in the 2004 boxed set “The Ultimate Collection.” That version incorporated the beat-box rhythm, a brisk double time, as part of its beat, and accompanied him with electric-keyboard chords.
In the new version the beat is different, scaled back to a cymbal tap and a programmed hand clap, and the chords are plinked on a piano, making the creamy vocal harmonies even more reminiscent of the Beach Boys. At the end, as in the 2004 song, ooh-ing vocals repeatedly change key, climbing more than half an octave. But now Jackson’s voice returns with lyrics, sounding suspiciously as if it has been digitally pitch-shifted. Regardless, I prefer the new one; it’s more transparent and uncluttered, a little more lighthearted.
“It was pretty finished,” Jackson’s co-producer on the song, Theron (Neff-U) Feemster, said in a telephone interview. But he added, “The only thing to do was to finish the arrangement on the song — what instruments would go in certain places, what percussion instruments, what sounds we wanted to add.” In other words, Jackson’s archives are being treated as works in progress. “Michael” is far more a reconstruction and fabrication than a remix. Tracks were completed after his death by producers who had worked with him, primarily Teddy Riley, John McClain and Mr. Feemster.
In some of the songs it’s clear the producers are eking out all they can from what recorded vocals Jackson left behind, stretching them with backup choirs, guests and cut-and-paste repetitions. (For instance, “Hollywood Tonight” — a song about a starlet that echoes “Billie Jean,” but which, according to Sony, was written for “Invincible” and reworked in 2007 — uses its entire first verse twice.)
“Michael” is a miscellany of familiar Jackson offerings: inspirational, loving, resentful and paranoid. It includes three songs from a period of seclusion: four months in 2007 when Jackson and his family moved into the Bergen County, N.J., home of Dominic Cascio, a manager at the Helmsley Palace Hotel, and Jackson worked on songs with Mr. Cascio’s sons in their home studio. Eddie Cascio shares songwriting credit on “Breaking News,” “Monster” and the hymnlike “Keep Your Head Up.”
Perhaps Jackson was homesick; he had Hollywood on his mind, reflecting bitterly on stardom. “You give ’em your all, they’re watching you fall, and they eat your soul,” he laments in “Monster,” which is punctuated by screams and breaking glass (like “Scream”). The singer is besieged by invaders, including the news media again (“Paparazzi got you scared like a monster”), until a guest rap by 50 Cent flips terror into belligerence.
A lover’s affirmations — “You’re the one that makes me strong” — sound desperate in “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day,” a rock song that Lenny Kravitz wrote for Jackson, recorded with him in the early 2000s and revised more recently. There are also mementos of a younger Michael Jackson. Sometime before the mid-1980s he added lyrics about a coldhearted woman to “Behind the Mask,” a 1979 hit by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s group Yellow Magic Orchestra. Now, inexplicably, Jackson’s long-delayed official version (completed by Mr. McClain) includes applause and squeals from concert crowds.
The album’s delicate closing song, “Much Too Soon,” dates to the early-1980s sessions for “Thriller” but stays largely acoustic and approachable. It’s an unexpected companion piece to “Best of Joy,” a love song that promises, “We are forever” over acoustic guitar and twinkling synthesizer. According to Sony “Best of Joy” was one of the last songs Jackson worked on. Its vocal arrangements are elaborate, yet the sound quality suggests it’s a demo, awaiting rerecording that never occurred. It’s more touching without the gloss. “The moment was there,” said Mr. Feemster, one of its producers. “You can always paint around the moment.”
Sony and the Jackson estate have two possible paths. They can serve up Jackson’s outtakes and archives as he left them, if indeed the songs are complete enough to release. Or they can continue what “Michael” has started, treating Jackson’s work as a digital apparition, as source material for recordings that work outside chronology and authenticity. Instead of pretending to divine his intentions, they could bring in the many producers and songwriters Jackson influenced — Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, R. Kelly, Usher, Britney Spears, OutKast, Janelle Monae, Prince, Madonna, Will.i.am, truly an endless list — and give them a chance to meet Jackson artist to artist, working with songs still unheard.
The real Michael Jackson died in 2009. R.I.P. His musical artifacts can still be resurrected.