It has been a long time since Michael Jackson, dead or alive, was the leader of the pop pack. But Xscape, a posthumous LP released Tuesday, unearths several new cuts from those incandescent days when he really was the King of Pop — and before allegations and painkillers stole that crown.
And once again, MJ is the best thing on the radio dial.
Go back to Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), Bad (1987): Jackson was light years ahead, as if he could fly and everyone else wore concrete shoes. But time, what little of it the 50-year-old ultimately had, brought him back to earth. Late-career albums Dangerous, HIStory, Invincible and most regrettably 2010's turgid, fragmentary posthumous LP Michael all increasingly showed an uneasy performer chasing, instead of dictating, what was cool.
So it's surprising, and absolutely awesome, that latest MJ single Love Never Felt So Good, written in 1983 and leading off Xscape, is unlike anything heard on today's Top 40. Co-written by Paul Anka(!), rediscovered in the vaults by music mogul L.A. Reid, and enhanced by a Justin Timberlake cameo, the synthy groover is infused with unmistakable MJ verve. Swing, joy, grace are ingredients Jackson once summoned as easily as the rest of us reach for the salt.
Xscape's worth-the-cash deluxe version, which was No. 2 on iTunes at press time, contains several iterations of Love Never Felt So Good: the original disco-juiced track as MJ intended, a charming demo version and that blown-out duet with a genuflecting Timberlake, pop's newest royal and someone Jackson had wanted to duet with before his death in June 2009. None of the versions sound dated at all; they simply sound timeless.
Love Never Felt So Good was lovingly tinkered with by Timbaland, one of several producers (Stargate, Babyface, Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins) brought in to spruce up the material Reid found in the family vaults. Whereas 2010's stinko Michael album, a commercial flop in the United States, featured hardly any real Michael spirit at all, Xscape's tracks were all worked over, to some degree, by the artist. Even better, many of the cuts are from the Thriller and Bad eras, which means Jackson's voice is often fluttery and light, not that hard, bitter spat that showed up when life turned sour.
The regular edition of Xscape has eight tracks, and there's fun to be had beyond Love Never Felt So Good. The puddle-deep Loving You ("We'll make a wish and then we'll kiss, our love forever true") is MJ giddy in love, Human Nature you can dance to. For the loping fantasy A Place With No Name — about a man torn by his desires, a topic MJ knew well — Norwegian producers Stargate (Katy Perry's Firework) futurize the riff from The Way You Make Feel as the singer borrows from America's A Horse With No Name. The Michael record had no real hits; Xscape could have two great ones.
There isn't really a prolonged dull patch on Xscape, but not everything shimmers to the same sheen. The main vocal on the paparazzi-slamming title track sounds thick, suspicious, although Darkchild's production is booty-bumping stellar. Blue Gangsta is a brash boasting song, although I'm not quite sure what's he's boasting about here. And Chicago and Slave to the Rhythm (a dangerous woman, a dangerous dance floor) are tracks the King could have written in his hyperbaric sleep chamber, which doesn't make them bad, just easy.
So that leaves one more cut: Do You Know Where Your Children Are, a hold-them-close plea against child abuse. Who knows what Jackson's original production ideas were? All we know is that here Timbaland goes with a midtempo churn that builds to a tee-hee-ing crescendo, music and lyric seemingly out of sync.
Was that deliberate? Maybe. After all, Jackson's reputation, although certainly more saintish than sinful these days, remains speckled with allegations of child endangerment. For better or worse, this isn't the place for that. Xscape is all about remembering a man who flew high before he fell hard. Welcome back, MJ.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seandalypoplife.