Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Let's get this out of the way: yes, I am writing this review because Michael Jackson died. If Michael Jackson had not died recently I would not be writing this review. Yes, it is a sad fact of life that your casual American dude will only celebrate the mertis of a great artist after they have already died. "Where was all this adulation when they were ALIVE, you sycophantic poser??" some will say.
But hey! I've always loved Michael Jackson. I even wrote a review of 1991's Dangerous last summer, during a personal fit of Jackson-mania. And while I admit I hadn't been listening to the guy as much before his unfortunate death, he has always been apart of my musical spectrum, so to speak. I'd still throw on Off The Wall and Thriller at parties. The guy knew how to boogie down better than anybody back in the day - and nobody could craft more perfectly sequenced dance tracks, not even Prince. So why not use his tragic death as an excuse to write about him again?
And in contrast to the increasingly difficult last two decades of Jackson's life, I would like to talk about 1979's Off The Wall, no doubt the most joyous album Jackson would ever release. Thriller was obviously the iconic hit, but even that record has a more calculated commercial sheen to it - not to mention the first signs of Jackson's ever-creeping paranoia. Off The Wall makes none of these concessions; it is an organic, exciting, endlessly danceable record, one that celebrates - in the greatest way possible - Jackson's newfound sense of freedom as a solo artist. He'd done solo albums before, but they were mostly commercial side-projects orchestrated by Jackson 5 producers, with little creative input from MJ himself. Here, he is totally in control of every beat, every added instrument, every staccato vocal inflection - which gives the album a tight, cohesive feel. Never again would Jackson manage to craft and endless-dance album as perfectly as he did on Off The Wall; save for a few poppier numbers in the middle, and only one ballad, this album is chock-full of great disco-tinged shakers, and does not let up until the final strains of "Burn This Disco Out."
Do we need to go over some tracks here? Yeah, let's do that. The record kicks off with "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," the greatest dance song ever recorded. Yes, yes it is. Can we all agree on this? It is six minutes of pure dance floor perfection. Everything, from Michael's intro "WHOO" to that horn-blaring middle-eight to that eerily funky guitar riff during the song's fadeout is just... well, you know. "Rock With You" is next - oh jeez, I'm not going to even say anything on that one. Come on! You know it. Two other Rod Temperton songs - "Off The Wall" and "Burn This Disco Out" - can be found here, along with some great lesser-known songs by outside writers ("Girlfriend" by Paul McCartney, "I Can't Help It" by Stevie Wonder). Fantastic lesser-known album tracks include "Workin' Day And Night" (featuring a mesmerizing staccato breath-rhythm from MJ), "Get On The Floor," "It's The Falling In Love," etc. etc. The ballad "She's Out Of My Life" may break up the dancefloor euphoria for a little while, but it's still great, probably the best schmaltzy ballad MJ could manage. So good, so good.
Maybe this review is becoming a little sycophantic. Yeah. But man, I love Off The Wall. If you're looking for an MJ record without all the paranoia, anger, and (worse yet) "save the children" ploys, this is the record for you - probably the most theraputic listen possible after his death. He never sounded this organic, this unhindered, ever again. Sad, but true.
What I will say is that this review has yet to reveal how truly sad I am about Michael Jackson's death. It didn't hit me when it actually happened - I was almost relieved, at the time, to see him out of his misery - but when I heard about how close he was to his giant comeback concerts, it got to me. I mean, what if he'd had a legitimate comeback? What if the world fell in love with him all over again? Why didn't he deserve one last moment? Man. Maaan.
To close this up, I'll quote the last part of my Dangerous review from last year, which sums up my thoughts on MJ better than I can articulate at the moment:
"Y'know, there's no point in me denying Michael Jackson. Yes, he doesn't have the consistency nor the artistic cred that Prince has, but man, when he was big, he was bigger than anybody. I feel a comparison to Elvis is apt (I'm not saying MJ is better or equal to Elvis, it's just for comparison): like Elvis, Michael Jackson wasn't necessarily an absolutely stellar recording artist and was ultimately brought down by his bizarre personal life, but he honestly had the ability to touch the world at his peak (make all the jokes about that statement as you like), something Prince could never ever do. And most of the time, he had the music to back it up."
Can't say I'm happy with that Elvis comparison right about now.
Rest in peace, bud.