Michael Jackson has a good thing in ‘Bad’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Pressure. Tension. Creative block. Cold feet.

Rumor had it that the world’s favorite frail man-child was in a state of panic as he struggled to make an album to follow 1982’s “Thriller,” the biggest-selling LP in the history of the universe and a cultural phenomenon of the first order.

So what does Michael Jackson do? He turns in two supremely relaxed performances: the gospel anthem “Man in the Mirror” and the classic Motown update “Just Good Friends,” a duet with Stevie Wonder.

Those are the two cuts that immediately jump out from “Bad” (due in the stores today), an album whose consistency, sureness and scaled-down intentions make it a respectable successor to “Thriller.”

The fact that the LP’s key tracks are rooted in established traditions is a clue to “Bad’s” relatively modest aims. “Thriller’s” hallmark was the vaulting ambition and hair-raising power of two startling songs “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” (and, to a slightly lesser degree, “Beat It”). “Bad’s” retreat from that kind of ambition is a letdown, but it’s understandable: It would have been hard to out-thrill “Thriller” without the strain showing.

Beyond those two standout songs, “Bad” is a fair-to-strong array of soul and rock blends. If the aims are modest, there’s nothing low-key about the way producer Quincy Jones assembles a track, and his sound is typically forceful, vivid, rich and deep. It also tends to be a little mechanical--especially the way he splices in Jackson’s tightly woven multi-tracked backing vocals.

And there’s one crashing dud--the single “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” As if the lightweight ballad’s lack of substance weren’t enough, the album version opens with Jackson cooing a tremulous spoken intro that goes, in part, “I just want to lay next to you for awhile. You look so beautiful tonight. . . . A lot of people misunderstand me. That’s because they don’t know me at all. I just want to touch you and hold you. . . .”

This soliloquy is meant to be revealing, tender and vulnerable, but with his quivering timbre and the haunting music behind, it comes off a little creepy, like Norman Bates gearing up for “Psycho IV.”

“Liberian Girl” is a much better ballad than “Can’t Stop,” with its dusky, tropical atmosphere, jazz shadings and less mawkish lyrics. The rest of the cuts are upbeat: the driving title song, the loping shuffle “The Way You Make Me Feel,” the high-tech rocker “Speed Demon” (audiophiles will zero in on the “race car intro-Dimensional recording . . .”), the heavy R&B riffer “Another Part of Me” (a timely salute to harmonic convergence).

“Dirty Diana” is trying to be this year’s “Beat It"--a hard-rock song about a tenacious groupie that’s sent into orbit by a Steve Stevens guitar solo. “Smooth Criminal” ends the album on an odd note (the CD has an extra track, the Stevie Wonder-like shuffle “Leave Me Alone”). This stuttering rocker is a grim, cryptic account of a woman being killed by an intruder, and there isn’t much point to it beyond giving Jackson a chance to sing “Annie-are-you-OK?” over and over.

“Criminal” also has the only sample of the high, double-track vocal sound that made “Billie Jean” so chilling. On most of the album Jackson sings in a clean, straightforward style, though he also tries a gruff, whispery approach that isn’t especially appealing. Another encouraging sign is that Jackson wrote nine of the songs on “Bad,” as opposed to just four on “Thriller.”

He didn’t write either of those two standout songs, but his performances really spark them. Terry Britten and Graham Lyle’s “Just Good Friends” pairs him with Stevie Wonder--quite a step up from Paul McCartney as a vocal sparring partner. The song has an early Jackson 5 charge and a lot of Motown history in its blood, and the spirited vocal exchanges generate a charming, no-pressure vibe.

Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard’s “Man in the Mirror” is the anthem, the centerpiece. A message song about changing the world by changing the individual, it’s more than a little sentimental, but there’s a toughness to the lyric and plenty of force in the music.

It builds gradually from a subdued start, stepping up in intensity until a full choir enters. From there it’s all gloriously free solo and choral vocal interplay, marked by what is certainly Jackson’s most fiery, churchy singing ever.

All in all, “Bad’s” not bad--more reminiscent of “Off the Wall’s” uniform strength than “Thriller’s” peaks and valleys. It would be disappointing if this album’s creative level is where Jackson wants to stay. But if it gives him a little breathing room and clears the air for future ground breaking, great. In a way, Jackson would be better off without having to deal with another phenomenon.