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Review: There's not enough Michael on 'Michael'

First of all, it's not an album; it's a footnote, a curiosity of hiccups and sonic sketches from a perfectionist who never dared air his unfinished thoughts when he was alive. I'm guessing Michael would have hated Michael, the first posthumous album of unreleased material from the late, lamented King of Pop. But that doesn't mean you'll hate it, too.

For all the excitement surrounding "new" Michael Jackson product, there's a strong whiff of deception wafting about this 10-track comp, released today to bittersweet fanfare. Family members (some of whom are bonkers — coughLaToyacough!) are questioning the authenticity of the vocals; that includes journos-are-evil cut Breaking News, which is lame enough with its paranoid lyrics and clunky New Jack beat.

Jackson's handlers — a faceless team of lawyers and advisers ominously called "the Estate" in the liner notes — insist that MJ is on every song, and yet they also admit a slew of producers (including MJ pal Teddy Riley) were hired to prop up the scraps the man left behind.

And that, of course, leads to Michael's biggest setback: Jackson was an infamous tinkerer, unwilling to let anything reach our ears until he deemed it ready. Five years separated 1982's Thriller and 1987's Bad; four more went by before 1991's Dangerous. And yet, his scrapbook was raided anyway in the name of loot and legacy. Never mind that there was a reason he never released this stuff when he was still with us.

Michael's ultimate aftertaste is one of sadness and slime. How much of this is truly his creation? From the sound of it, not a lot. First single Hold My Hand, a dreadfully syrupy duet with Akon recorded in 2007, shows MJ as a follower of trends rather than a leader. The drossy Hollywood Tonight lacks bite and focus (it's like if 98 Degrees remade Dirty Diana), and the treacly saptacular Keep Your Head Up is Jackson at his unchecked Heal the World worst.

And yet, most artists would nevertheless kill to have his leftovers and half-cooked vocal snips. The best track is worth the price of the whole shebang: Much Too Soon was recorded during the peerless Thriller sessions. It sounds almost purely unearthed from two decades ago. It's a breakup song, a not-so-distant cousin of his own She's Out of My Life and Stevie Wonder's Stay Gold. It's acoustic, tender, brutally sad, and Michael's coo is once again on the verge of tears. So good! Tito, get him a tissue!

You should also check out Behind the Mask, a propulsive cover of a Yellow Magic Orchestra song baked during the Thriller era. The Motown riff (I Like) The Way You Love Me, which appeared on a 2004 collection, has a groovin' innocence, a family-friendly The Way You Make Me Feel. And although the lurching Monster, which features a 50 Cent rap, and the guitar-licked (I Can't Make It) Another Day, with Lenny Kravitz and Dave Grohl, aren't anything special, the strange-bedfellows recipe adds a certain charm.

With the exception of the pure, spare Much Too Soon, there's probably nothing here that has a shot at making your "Best of MJ" playlist. That's disheartening for sure. After all, Jackson's looming estate is planning on releasing seven new albums over the next seven years. And doesn't that grim thought conjure an unsettling question: If this was the best in MJ's vault, what's left?

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.

.FAST FACTS

Michael Jackson, Michael (Epic) GRADE: C+

Review: There's not enough Michael on 'Michael' 12/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 12:47pm]

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