The King of Pop ... Michael Jackson performs during a concert near Paris in 1992. Jackson's 'Xscape' is the second album released since his death on June 25, 2009. Photo: AFP Photo
There is no getting around the simple fact that this is an album which shouldn't have come out.
No matter how you package it or phrase it, these are songs which were never finished by Michael Jackson before his death in 2009, never scheduled for release during the decade or two beforehand when they had been written and partially recorded and now songs which have been remodelled, to varying degrees, by new "executive producers".
This is by no means the complete travesty that was the “album” called Michael, also of unreleased/unfinished songs and released in the immediate wake of his death, that was so slapdash and marred with controversy (his not-always-sensible family even claimed that it wasn’t Jackson’s voice on some of the tracks) that even the devotees struggled to find solace in it after they bought it in their millions.
'Xscape', Michael Jackon's second posthumous album, is full of previously unreleased and unfinished songs. Photo: Sony
But nonetheless, it is hardly being provocative to say of the songs on Xscape, which were begun between 1983 and 1999, that if Michael Jackson had wanted them out, they would have come out.
How you respond to the album inevitably will be informed by how you accept the idea, as explained by one of the executive producers – and occasional collaborator with Jackson – LA Reid, that this has been done "in the spirit" of Jackson’s original plans.
"We think we are in keeping with what Michael wanted," Reid said in Sydney a month ago at an industry playback of the album.
Oddities continue in the way the album has been preceded by a single that in fact is not on the album, or at least not the standard version of Xscape.
If you buy the deluxe version of Xscape you will get the eight regular songs, then pre-contemporary enhancement versions of those songs plus a third take on Love Never Felt So Good, a “duet” with Justin Timberlake.
It’s fair to say Timberlake’s contribution is pretty superfluous or a waste of his talent (take your generational pick) as he barely figures and when he does appear sounds more concerned about not competing with his obvious idol.
That song, Love Never Felt So Good – co-written with the unlikely figure of Paul Anka shortly after Thriller was released in 1982 - begins the album proper and is both one of the best moments here and also fairly indicative of one of the sustained threads throughout: a sense of connection, or searching for connection, with what you might call the golden period of Jackson’s career, between 1979’s Off The Wall and 1987’s Bad.
It has a mid-tempo dance feel which recalls the late ‘70s, strings and piano and little squeals in the background that had already become Jackson staples.
There’s definite charm to it, you want to push your jacket sleeves up and get down, ala the Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough filmclip, and his voice sounds sweet. But the chorus never quite lifts off completely. Maybe its similarity to the Off The Wall songs kept it from Bad or maybe Jackson knew then that it was a good but not great track.
Something similar affects Loving You, a song begun around the time of Bad which is the other challenger for pick of the bunch status.
Its bass sound is beefed up a bit more, his breathy singing dances on the ‘70s soul melody and there’s a pop sensibility at play. But again there’s a sense of a song not quite pushed to its limits.
It’s not necessarily lack of ideas that hold things back. 1991’s Slave To The Rhythm (which features some cool synth sounds and an electro heart) and 1998’s Blue Gangsta (heavy on the stacked vocals and kick-and-drag rhythm in the chorus) are busy tracks with lots of going on but that busy-ness only partially camouflages the truth that both are pretty slight songs.
And the unusual A Place With No Name (which borrows, with due credit, from America’s Horse With No Name and is from the same period, leading up to 2001’s Invincible album, as Blue Gangsta) mixes Stevie Wonder keyboards, a strong rhythm track and active percussion underneath a melody searching for a reason to be.
Interest inevitably will fall on Do You Know Where Your Children Are?, and not really for the harder edge to its R&B. It has a chorus that you could well imagine Timberlake borrowing a decade later (and doing more with) or clear references to one of Jackson’s greatest moments, Wanna Be Startin’ Something.
The song’s storyline, about a girl sexually abused by her step-father, seduced by the prospect of Hollywood and then sexually abused as a streetwalker on Sunset Boulevard – all by the age of 12 – isn’t going to escape the sordid accusations of molestation thrown at Jackson in the last decade and a half of his life.
You’d have to wonder if someone at the time told him this wasn’t the best idea to be putting out there. And if someone now shouldn’t have said the same thing. But then what Michael Jackson wanted is a matter of dispute with this album anyway.
Xscape is available on May 13