A true ‘Thriller’: box set highlights Michael Jackson’s songwriting genius

By Mark Guarino

Year after year, tabloid story after tabloid story, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember Michael Jackson was once a musical colossus. In his prodigy years as a steelworker’s son in Gary, Ind., he crooned, shouted and delivered a range of adult yearnings while still bottled inside the body of a tiny boy. When he finally became an adult, he had created a dramatic vocal and dance style that was built on tension. Everything he did was a tightrope between aggression and vulnerability, innocence and flirtation. Rare for any generation of entertainers, Jackson was indescribable because of his deep complexity as a songwriter, singer and performer. He could not be compared to anyone before him and no one has taken his crown since.

Not that he still wears it. Over the last decade, Jackson has been embroiled in an entanglement of high profile court battles, the most serious involving charges of child molestation that are ongoing. His album sales have been on a constant downturn, his body image has mutated and his continual odd behavior and scandals have made him an automatic punchline for comics at the water cooler or on TV.

So at 46, Jackson is stuck as a man painfully detached from his boyhood and it’s become a disaster to witness. His songs during this latter chapter have been mostly sap with regurgitated themes of lost childhood with wistful themes like butterflies. Listening to him sing “have you seen my childhood?/I’m searching for the world that I come from” (“Childhood”), you feel the pity that he intends, but also a kind of dread. You sort of wish he’d stop already and just disappear so this self-flagellating, spooky middle age man would no longer insist he’s Peter Pan because Peter had the ability to transport you to the hidden recesses of youth and Jackson no longer can.

A sure way to visit a time when that was not the case is “Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection” (Epic), a five-disc box set, in stores Tuesday. The chronological order of the discs, his first-ever box set that includes a DVD documenting his 1993 “Dangerous” tour, is at first a revelation, then a gradual slide into a mess. Despite outtakes and demos that are together not very compelling, the set does assemble the long journey of Jackson’s career and the build, within an initial short period of years, of a body of work that even today sounds bursting with vitality and imagination.

The first disc dazzles. Even though he became the lead singer of the Jackson 5 when he was barely a teenager, Jackson was hardly the novelty act of today’s “American Idol” generation whose fine art is mimicry on command. He actually delivered the adult hunger of ballads like “Got To Be There” or the celebratory pleas of funky dance pop like “I Want You Back.” These songs still hold up, thanks to the warm, soft lens production of Motown and Jackson’s supple vocals, which curl around a particular phrase, then shoot to celestial heights. Demos from these early days demonstrate his commitment to his distinct vocal style. On “Shake a Body,” which later became the Jacksons hit “Shake Your Body,” Jackson sounds like he’s caught in a private moment. In the barebones production, you can hear him inventing the vocal ticks that would later become his signature.

In its assembly, the box makes its case that Jackson is one of pop’s most unappreciated songwriters whose mass popularity has diminished the reality that, masked by the groundbreaking videos that overwhelmed them, he wrote multifaceted songs grappling with paranoia, fear and violence.

When he entered his collaborative era with Quincy Jones, Jackson had become a much grittier singer, who poured a heavy dose of tension into every grunt, pant and whoop. His hits from that time period were explosive cocktails, cased in fat, buttery basslines, dark synthesizers, perfectly arranged horns and driving beats. They were the stuff of pop drama but with a much darker edge than the day’s typical MTV fluff. Chased by Eddie Van Halen’s guitar and the song’s ominous opening chimes, “Beat It” is pure street terror as is its accompanying hit single, “Billie Jean,” the diary of the father of an unwanted pregnancy who denies he’s the parent until the very end. The songs set the template for later songs like “Dirty Diana,” a tortured rant against a stalker, and “Smooth Criminal,” a song about domestic violence with an eerie chorus that whispers, “Annie, are you OK?”

Jones is to be credited for finessing the details of these songs that make them so endurable. But as a songwriter, Jackson ushered in a new type of commercial pop music that was dangerous and uniquely connected to the singer. There’s a reason why his songs are so rarely covered. Their original versions are such unshakeable pop productions, they seem to only exist in Jackson’s world where disturbing conflict and friendly accessibility are tightly bound together.

By the time the ‘90s rolled around, Jackson began chasing after current trends that always felt like an ill fit. He relied on co-writers (R. Kelly, Glen Ballard, Rodney Jerkins), rising star producers (Teddy Riley, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds), cameos from rappers (Heavy D, Notorious B.I.G.) and settled on recording mostly flowery ballads that, over time, became caricature.

The expensive, overblown productions lacked the warmth and complexity of the Jones era. His songwriting suffered a series of misfires, mainly because, in the rise of rap into the mainstream, he forsakes melody for rhythm. “In the Back,” an unreleased track, was recorded over an astounding ten years, and is a lifeless rhythmic track set against harp and trumpet. “Monkey Business,” another track from the vaults, featuring a cameo from his pet chimp Bubbles, is hard funk with symphonic strings where Jackson cloaks himself unconvincingly in the clothes of a thug, shouting out “your bidness/if my bidness.”

The box’s DVD concert from Bucharest was originally aired on HBO and since Jackson has not toured the U.S. since the ‘80s, it is a rare chance to see him perform a complete concert. The production is surprisingly stark, solely designed around his deft and controlled dance moves and the set list visits his Jackson 5 days up through the “Dangerous” album. That summer, Jackson would receive his first charges of child molestation and the downward spiral would begin rotating. Think of this show as a last chance to witness a time when the King of Pop truly ruled.

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