By Marcus L. Wang
Crimson Staff Writer
Once upon a time, there was a boy who rose from poverty to superstardom. His music touched the hearts of millions and changed the world. So loved was he that the people crowned him King. But with time, his contributions were forgotten and his name no longer commanded the same adulation or respect.
But on Oct. 30, he made one last bid to recapture the hearts of his fans, to secure his seat in HIStory. He showed that he had finally grown up. His past he respected but did not repeat. After so many years, he was back.
That was the story of the boy.
This is the story of the man.
Everything that made Michael Jackson a success—the irresistibly compelling dance numbers, the unique vocal stylings—is briefly paid homage to and is just as quickly discarded. This is clearly meant to be the rebirth of a new Jackson, distinct from all that has come before. As critics continually delight in pointing out, it has been 20 years since Thriller, 20 years since the King of Pop rocked the world. The intervening years for him were a struggle to prove that he could do it again. Formulas were trotted out and repeated; the world changed, but Jackson’s music, however enjoyable, remained steadfastly the same.
Invincible comes then as a welcome relief for sore ears. Today’s popstars grew up on Jackson, and even today slavishly imitate him and ape the onstage actions of his glory days. Jackson’s recent albums, such as Blood on the Dance Floor, sounded less like Jackson and more like an imitator, a wanna-be vainly trying to recapture that old magic.
All that has changed with Invincible. To be sure, there is much to both like and dislike about the disc, Jackson’s first studio release of totally brand-new material since 1991’s Dangerous. But for the first time since Thriller, the erstwhile King shows that he’s capable of breaking the mold once again. The King is dead. Long live the King.
The biggest change is in the voice. Jackson’s voice is immediately recognizable the world over. It is a high-pitched, slightly feminine sound that approaches every note and every line in an incredibly mannered fashion. A forced exhalation and exuberant yell (“Ahh...woo!”) are his trademark sounds. And, for the most part, Jackson does away with all of them on Invincible. He demonstrates considerable vocal range, maturity and honesty. Emotions no longer struggle to filter through the mannerisms; they are laid bare in their entirety. Jackson strips away his image to reveal a new vocal crispness that conveys far more than ever before in terms of nuance and clarity. At times, the listener may wonder if this is the same vocalist who gave the world “Billie Jean” or “Remember the Time.” This new direction has its downsides; in a few numbers his voice sounds wire-thin and lacks richness. For the most part, however, Jackson’s new voice is welcome; it uproots the superstar from the trap of the past and propels him firmly to a seat in the future.
Despite the buildup to the release of Invincible, fueled by the much-hyped Madison Square Garden tribute concerts and the re-releases of his past albums, the packaging for the album is relatively low-key. Aside from variations in the color of the booklet, there are no bells and whistles, no enhanced features for the computer, no coupons, no extra cardboard packaging, nothing. The focus of this album is solely on the music.
The songs themselves vary in quality. The album is a collaboration with scores of musicians whose artistic visions have all been distilled by the Gloved One himself. At times, his musical choices seem adrift in pop culture limbo; they do not fit effortlessly into the tired mold of his past, neither do they completely succeed in making the transition to being on the cutting edge of modern pop.
High expectations hurt this album more than anything else; advance press promised release that could break sales records, set the world on fire, and do just about anything short of curing cancer. In truth, the material here is about as good, and in most cases, superior to the pop/rock/R&B music flooding the airwaves today. It is soothing, yet energetic. But it is by no means the mind-blowing, genre-twisting, generation-shaping experience that Jackson and his crew obviously hoped it would be.
The album opens with “Unbreakable,” a dance number that is as catchy and compelling as the best of Jackson’s past works. With minimal background music, the song is carried by his voice, which courses with passion and vitality. It also features a rap courtesy of the late Notorious B.I.G., which originally appeared in his song “I Can’t Stop the Reign.” Punctuated by the signature scream and sharp exhalation, “Unbreakable” defiantly announces Jackson’s comeback in no uncertain terms.
The next four tracks suffer by comparison. “Heartbreaker” is disposable synth-pop, upbeat and danceable, yet noticeably inferior. The lyrics are interesting, if slightly derivative of “Dangerous.” The tune is catchy, but ultimately flat and unappealing. “Invincible,” the title track, is yet another fast-paced number that quickly wears out its welcome. Simple and repetitive, the tune becomes tiring before the first minute is up. Far from being invincible, the track is riddled with flaws; the music is trite and jejune, while the vocals sound uncharacteristically thin and weak. “Break of Dawn” is harmless fluff, a love song that makes up for what it lacks in chutzpah with a tender sweetness. “Heaven Can Wait” possesses more interesting and touching lyrics, yet fails to capture its audience with its slow pace.
One might be forgiven for thinking that Jackson’s magic touch disappeared altogether at this point were it not for the subsequent tracks that restore the luster to his crown. The sixth track, “You Rock My World,” is the first single released off the album. Having climbed to the top of the charts around the globe (losing the battle to Kylie Minogue in the U.K. along the way), this track features dialogue by Rush Hour 2 comedian Chris Tucker. Positive and energetic, “World” is a glorious tribute to the Jackson of the past and a powerful bridge into his reign in the future. “Butterflies” is a feel-good love song that once again mines the saccharine territory of tracks four and five, but with far more success.
An a capella solo introduces “Speechless,” an incredibly sincere ballad composed and written by the King himself. Jackson’s voice is devoid of device and aching with heart-wrenching honesty and passion.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the album is the Teddy Riley collaboration “2000 Watts.” Gone is the high-pitched tenor of “Thriller” and “The Way You Make Me Feel.” In its place is a dark, sexy baritone that approaches each note with masculine conviction and authority. It may not sound like him, but it is truly Jackson bringing his voice down to earth and sounding good doing it. The number itself is an electrified industrial dance tune that suits this new voice perfectly. Anyone who thinks that Jackson is incapable of reinventing himself will change their tune upon hearing this track. Critics have lauded it as one of the best songs on the album; certainly it is a radically new attempt for the King of Pop.
Another showcase for Jackson’s newfound raw sincerity is “You Are My Life,” a pleasant love ballad enjoyable in its simplicity. “Privacy” is a throwback to “Scream,” both in terms of his voice and the music. Jackson angrily lashes out at his perennial foes, the media, to the sound of cameras clicking busily away in the background. And, while he does not mention her by name, he pays tribute to the death of Princess Diana while simultaneously attacking the paparazzi for causing her demise.
But the finest ballad of the album is “Don’t Walk Away.” It is emotionally moving—a perfect evocation of a breaking heart. One can identify with Jackson as he plaintively pleads with his love not to leave him.
“Cry,” the second single from Invincible, is an R. Kelly number that sounds like a rehash of 1986’s “Man in the Mirror.” Unlike the stirring original, this pale imitation is as rousing as a cup of warm milk. By the song’s end, the listener may want to take the advice of the track’s title.
Those in the mood for something light and sappy will want to adopt “The Lost Children.” Unrelentingly, mind-numbingly sweet, the song reminds us to care for the unfortunate young ones who still lack love. The crowning touch of blatant manipulation is the presence of children’s happy, natural voices in the background, which artifically adds to the emotional impact.
Veteran strummer Carlos Santana drives “Whatever Happens” with a guitar solo that is by turns calm and edgy. Similarly, the final track, “Threatened,” benefits greatly by the presence of a guest star in the form of the late Rod Serling. Audio snippets from the CBS archive are mixed and matched to the beat in this “Thriller” redux. Despite the audio special effects and lyrics that evoke occult fantastical nightmares, Jackson’s past hits will hardly feel “Threatened.” This is no “Thriller,” merely filler that will be better remembered for its interesting voice-over gimmick than by its largely uninteresting music.
Jackson’s latest album may not be entirely invincible, but it unmistakably demonstrates that his skill has only improved with time. Years pass by and kingdoms fall, but if Invincible is any indication, Jackson will continue to enjoy a long reign as the King of Pop.