When Michael Jackson died last year at age 50, the published, broadcast, blogged, and Tweeted tributes rehashed the sordid details of the King of Pop’s saga: Bubbles the chimp, the nasal surgery, his bleached skin, and so on. But all Robbie Fulks could think about was the music. “With Michael Jackson, the celebrity factor is such a distraction,” he says. “Removing that aspect and treating his music as just music is probably kind of a weird gesture, right?”
Answering that question is the newly released Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson (Boondoggle). The 14-track album snatches the songs out from under the TMZ microscope to reveal the many dimensions of Jackson’s catalog, from playful to paranoid, and filters them through multiple styles, including country soul, bluegrass, power balladry, and art rock.
Fulks, one of Chicago’s most musically dexterous performers, planned to release the album in 2005 but got sidetracked when he heard Jackson was up for trial on child molestation charges. “It seemed too contrary to the spirit of the record, which is more innocent,” he says. “The record is not so much about Michael Jackson but having an open spirit about music.”
After a series of recording sessions in Nashville, Fulks shelved the project indefinitely. But word of mouth kept it alive, culminating in a 2008 performance of Jackson’s songs at the Hideout Block Party that featured elaborate props, fog, the guest rapper Rhymefest, and dancing “Thriller” zombies. Jackson’s untimely death a year later gave Fulks a renewed purpose for the album and offered a chance for him and his band to record a few more songs at Electrical Audio, Steve Albini’s North Side studio.
“Not to sound ghoulish, but a minute after I got the news, I said, ‘Let’s call the pressing plant,’ ” he says.
Separated by time, the two recording sessions give the album a dimensionally opposite feel in terms of mood, arrangements, and songs. While offering the usual suspects—faithful renditions of “Billie Jean” and “Man in the Mirror”—it also features lesser-known songs, such as “Privacy,” which Fulks repositions as a paranoid noise collage, backed by the Chicago art-punk veterans Shellac and the singer Azita. “That’s typical Robbie: He likes to confound people,” says Grant Tye, a guitarist who plays on the album.
Fourteen years after his own debut, Fulks is going through a period of retrospection. He is launching a Monday night residency (set to run through the end of the year) at The Hideout, where he plans each week around a different musical format. The themes are limitless—from early-century mountain tunes to ABBA.
Fulks admits the Michael Jackson project allowed him to listen to the music at a different level than when he first heard it “on the radio somewhere or at a shopping mall.” He recalls being surprised on learning the lyrics of “Billie Jean” and trying to understand them. “It’s a darker, deeper piece of work than I realized hearing it with a disco beat in 1984,” he says.
“That’s why I say Jackson is the Elvis of my generation,” he continues. “You’re 10, he’s there, you’re 20, he’s there, you’re 40, he’s still freaking right there. He never goes away—he demands your attention whether you like him or not.”