Reinventing the gods can be tricky business, especially if those looming deities happen to be U2 and Michael Jackson. Two new "tribute" albums to the larger-than-life musicians are buzzing their way onto gift lists this season. But only one comes close to the tingly power of the source, and it does so because it wisely genuflects to the masters instead of trying to play just as mighty.
(Ahk-toong Bay-bi) Covered is a track-by-track homage to U2's 1991 game-changer Achtung Baby, with proceeds benefiting Concern, the international poverty-fighting organization. Immortal is the swirling sound of Cirque du Soleil — the high-flying, vaguely creepy theater troupe that has been so successful in taking on the Beatles and Elvis — reimagining the thrust of the Michael Jackson songbook. The MJ record will no doubt be the bigger seller, but it shouldn't be.
The guest list on the exceptionally moving Ahk-toong is both offbeat and bold, with many of the acts featured owing a great deal of their own success to Bono and the boys, from the Fray's Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World to Snow Patrol's Mysterious Ways to Glasvegas' Acrobat.
Achtung Baby was the sound of U2 desperate to shake things up, and many of their sonic choices were daring, with the Edge wanting his guitar to sound like anything but. And yet, the 11 acts here (U2 itself contributes a Jacques Lu Cont remix of Even Better Than the Real Thing) often scale back the boldness of the original, happy to focus on U2's chief ingredient: the spiritual uplift and earnest heart that have always fueled the Dubliners.
The Killers, with frontman Brandon Flowers pouring out thick gobs of emotion, turn the otherwise ethereal Ultra Violet (Light My Way) into a straightforward freight train that crescendoes into a giant thank-you note. Femme fatale Shirley Manson and her technotic Garbage men make Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses a torchy, slow-burn Bond song — that is, until it explodes in accusation that would make even 007 cower. Depeche Mode makes So Cruel an angular, robotic lesson in future-shock disdain.
Two eccentric soloists contribute the best tracks to Ahk-toong: Damien Rice's spare One is exceptional, painful and yearning in its isolation, and Jack White's Love Is Blindness is a stomping act of madness, with a schizoid guitar solo that sounds like an exploding music store. Yeah, he goes big, way big, but hey, he's Jack bleepin' White, and he pulls it off. Somewhere, Bono is smirking behind those dark shades.
Would Jackson have been just as happy with his treatment? Cirque du Soleil is inherently a visual experience, so maybe it's not fair to judge Immortal solely on sonic merits. That said, the LOVE soundtrack — as overseen by Fab Four producer George Martin — worked as a collage of the Beatles' best, especially a stripped version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. There's nothing that gripping on Immortal, with "musical designer" Kevin Antunes and show director Jamie King instead settling for injecting sound effects and trickery into connected snippets of some 40 MJ classics.
A merging of Beat It and Jacksons-Jagger duet State of Shock features overwrought dialogue from the Bad video. An echoing, rain-soaked You Are Not Alone is paired with I Just Can't Stop Loving You, which suddenly switches into a Spanish version. The Cirque folks have a violent blast with all the gunplay production of Smooth Criminal, but that song was already a whirlwind of frantic ideas. Does it really need more clutter? And why try to outdo the King of Pop? It's all interesting, and kind of what-next clever, but there's very little reason to ever listen again.
It would have been nice to hear more isolated emphasis on Jackson's voice; for all his dancing flash, he was an underrated singer. And there's a weird reliance on late-career work, especially since his '70s stuff was so exuberant. Oh well. After listening to Immortal, I didn't really want to see the stage show. Instead, I just wanted to listen to the original Off the Wall on vinyl — no special effects necessary.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.