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Michael Jackson's 'Invincible'
Ever since the unprecedented success of 1982's "Thriller," Michael Jackson has tried to find magic and symbolism in one-word album titles. There was "Bad," then "Dangerous" and even "HIStory." So it's not surprising that he turns to the formula once again with his first collection of new material in six years, which is due in stores Tuesday.
The title can be seen as a statement to those who have questioned the self-proclaimed King of Pop's creative and commercial standing during all the image-bruising, tabloid scrutiny he's undergone since "Thriller."
But the music itself is anything but invincible.
Jackson has enlisted enough co-writers to fill a city bus, but they haven't helped him recapture the vitality and command that made the highlights of his work with Quincy Jones on "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" seem so urgent.
There are some inspired moments in the 77-minute collection, but there are also stretches that are sappy, derivative and labored. The excesses show what happens when you have an unlimited budget, no time constraints and an uncertain vision.
Rodney Jerkins, the young producer who has served up hits for Whitney Houston and Jennifer Lopez with the ease of a flapjack cook, helps Jackson get off to a winning start. His rhythm track on "Unbreakable" is so striking that savvy stereo retailers could use it to demonstrate the wonders of their latest sound systems.
"Heartbreaker" and the title song are also sonic marvels that lead us to think Jackson has thrown away some of the security blankets he's held onto since "Thriller," and moved into daring new territory. His singing is sassy, defiant and forceful. If "Invincible" had continued on this dynamic path, the album might have been a 31/2-star project.
But any chance of that rating evaporates the moment you hear "Break of Dawn." In that song and others, Jackson rests his comeback on his least convincing persona: lover boy.
"Break of Dawn," a love song with the breathless, quivering vocal that has become an annoying Jackson trademark, and "Heaven Can Wait," a tale about turning away an angel who comes to take him to heaven because he wants to stay with his darling, seem aimed at the lower end of 'N Sync's fan base--a difficult stretch for a man of 43.
Other songs that also deal with puppy love are as woefully generic as their titles. The one about romantic jitters is called "Butterflies." The one about being tongued-tied by love is titled "Speechless."
In the midst of this emotional abyss, Jackson connects marvelously with co-producer Teddy Riley on "2000 Watts," a celebration of dance music's therapeutic powers that should be a club anthem for months.
But the remaining tracks revisit familiar territory with varying effectiveness. "You Rock My World" is old-school Jackson, and "Privacy" is yet another slap at prying media eyes. R. Kelly's "Cry" fills the social commentary role of "Man in the Mirror."
"The Lost Children," one of only two songs that Jackson wrote on his own, is an ultra-sensitive expression of concern about young people in need, but the good intentions are sabotaged by a heavy-handed arrangement.
So how did Jackson get from the command of "Thriller" to the uncertainty of "Invincible"?
In "Off the Wall" and "Thriller," Jackson proved both an inspiring artist and a crafty hit-maker. But he seems to have become so absorbed by the hit-making side that selling records became more important than the artistry. He most certainly wanted to make the best records he could, but he also seemed to tailor the music to fit demographics and trends.
Facing enormous, self-imposed pressure each time he steps into the studio, Jackson has gotten further and further from the innocence and joy that gave the early work such power and appeal.
The question is whether it's even possible for him to regain that focus.