Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones gave themselves a tough act to follow with 'Off the Wall,' Jackson's landmark 1979 album that yielded four Top 10 hits and came as close as anything in recent years to reuniting the splintered factions of today's pop audience.
Jackson and producer Jones don't seem at all intimidated by the challenge on "Thriller," which revives some of "Wall's" appealing surface qualities while introducing some intriguing new elements. It's not as consistent, but "Thriller" has more gears, and Jackson's peaks as a songwriter and singer overshadow even the high points of "Off the Wall."
You'd never guess it from the treacly hit "The Girl Is Mine," but Jackson has composed some strikingly eccentric, personal songs that take "Thriller" far beyond the predominantly dance-floor content of its predecessor. His singing has lost some of its boyishness, but, like a basketball player who's worked all summer, he's picked up some new moves that will make you dizzy. Perhaps most miraculously of all, he has somehow gotten the members of Toto to perform with taste.
But he didn't pull the same trick with his partner on "The Girl Is Mine." Paul McCartney. A Midas, whose touch turns music to vanilla, exerts an unduly relaxing effect on Jackson, and any girl worth her salt would be out looking for some real action by the time these two have finished their little vocal tug-of war over her.
Most typical of the LP's scope is the opening "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." This searing look at the price of celebrity (one of several on the album) is set in a laser-etched groove, and Jackson, his voice scampering, punching, and wobbling, really earns the triumphant affirmation that comes at the summit of this musical Everest.
"Billie Jean," its companion piece, also deals with the twisting of the truth. Its slinky, bass-centered riffs and dark-toned string motif distinguish the arrangement, and Jackson's stabbing falsetto lends it a haunting air. If this cut doesn't quite put Jackson in Prince's league as an innovator, it at least signals that he's ready to challenge any time he chooses.
Another standout is "Human Nature," co-written by Steve Porcaro and arranged and played by him and other members of Toto. An electro-folky ballad, it elicits a sublime Jackson vocal that rumbles with wonder and anticipation. Jackson's hard-rock venture, "Beat It," is sonically exciting with its prodigious sproing sounds, but is less interesting as a song. Eddie Van Halen, though, contributes a guitar solo that matches Jackson's singing for bravado and alacrity.
The other selections, including three by Rod Temperton, are reminiscent of the classy but more conventional R&B of "Off the Wall" both twist-and-spin up-tempo songs that recall early Motown Jackson 5 and some rhapsodic romanticism in the Smokey Robinson tradition.
Temperton's best moment is the driving, high-spirited title track, a Disneyland for the ears with its creak, howls, whooshes, screams and moans. It features a "rap" by Vincent Price, and you have to hear him, in his best Boris Karloff accent, intoning. "Creatures crawl in search of blood/to terrorize y'awl's neighborhood."