Death doesn’t necessarily mean an end to a musical career, and it looks like Michael Jackson’s label still has a lot of unreleased and unfinished material waiting to be put out. Consumers have to expect that a lot of the work still hidden away in vaults are the musical equivalents of deleted scenes on a DVD, which means that fans shouldn’t hope for brilliance, as Jackson probably released his best work while still alive. Still, we had no right to expect Xscape to be as good as it is – the album, despite its absurd title, is a surprisingly solid collection of tunes. And while Xscape is enjoyable it doesn’t meet the impossibly high expectations of Off the Wall or Thriller, or even the (relatively) lower expectations of Bad or Dangerous. But Xscape easily bests Jackson’s woefully scattered 1995 release HIStory and its 2001 followup, Invincible as well as the awful Michael which was the late singer’s first release after his death.
What makes Xscape so strong is that for the most part, the songs deal primarily with love and romance. Later on his career, Jackson started to become ensnared by his colossal celebrity, and paranoia started to insert itself into his music, and his music became unpleasant and one-note. When he wasn’t lamenting his lost childhood he was spitting angry accusations at the media. With Xscape, Jackson’s sound returns to a far more effervescent tone, reminiscent of his Off the Wall period.
The opener “Love Never Felt So Good” sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1978, with its strings, stuttering Chic-like guitar and dancing bass (as well as a beguiling vocal performance by Jackson – he was really a first-rate vocalist). “Change” is another love song, a mid-tempo number with a throbbing bass and a moody, mellow Jackson joined by a more recognizable, frantic Jackson in the chorus. “Loving You” is a pleasing straight-forward pop song, with some nice piano work, a loud thumping synth bass line and even some harps. “A Place with No Name” borrows the swinging hook from Jackson’s 1989 tune “Leave Me Alone.”
It’s when Jackson’s material gets more serious or darker that the album shows its weakness. “Slave to the Rhythm” hints at some of Jackson’s worse instincts as a performer. The song, an unconvincing disco take on The Feminine Mystique trades on cliches without really saying anything about sexism. “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” threatens to be another one of Jackson’s wannabe-anthem, that thankfully is saved by its squishy, anthemic synth production, but it veers dangerously close to the kind of “save the babies” dreck he was so fond of singing (“Heal the World,” “Childhood,” “Will You Be There,” “Gone Too Soon”). And in “Blue Gangsta” and the title track are examples of how unconvincing Jackson is when he poses as a toughie, particularly when he chose to sing in his idiosyncratic, clenched-jaw manner, that made it sound as if warbling was actually painful for him.
So even though Xscape isn’t the disaster it could’ve been – after listening to the album, I wondered if it needed to be released. At his peak, Michael Jackson produced some of the most awe inspiring music ever. Trawling the vaults for half-finished demos and skeletal suggestions of pop tunes may not serve his legacy well. And though the production is efficient and competent, there is a feeling of thick, plastic feeling to the sound, vaguely mummified. It’s not an unpleasant record to listen to, and “Love Never Felt So Good” does sound like a legitimate Michael Jackson song, but after listening to the record I could help questioning the wisdom of releasing goosed-up versions of unfinished material – even if the expensive producers are able to patch up any holes.