Michael Jackson and his fears

By MARK MOSES  |  June 26, 2009

Thriller's limning of male insecurity ("Beat It"), calculated chills (the title track), whacked out paranoia ("Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'"), and romances that bring legal suits ("Billie Jean") are new to his solo career. But in the looser company of his brothers, Jackson has uncovered fears too morose for the star—turns his solo career required. The two hit singles from Triumph, the album the Jacksons made following Off the Wall, tell a good deal of the story. "Lovely One" presented Jackson chasing a hopeless love to jagged, stuttered beat that had previously propelled his brother's "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" and his own "Don't Stop." Booted by menacing bass and a suitably baroque arrangement that succeeded in yielding chills, the nightmare of "Heartbreak Hotel" had Jackson jilted by his girlfriend and trapped by "every girl that I knew." And you thought the Al Green of "Keep Me Cryin'" had troublesome fantasies about victimization.

Jackson still retains enough of hi magical celebrity so that all his worst fears don't materialize. The title cut of Thriller admits to ghostly theaters in tones pulpy, if not strident, enough o recall "Heartbreak Hotel." But the shocks in "Thriller" stay on the screen of the move that Jackson and his date are revealed to be watching, just another excuse to huddle closer in the dark. Leave it to Quincy Jones to orchestrate this most cinematic section, complete with guest rap by Vincent Price. "Thriller" may still find Jackson too much of a celebrity to take his fears seriously, but his own "Billie Jean" catches him deflecting an old girlfriend's paternity suit. Jackson is never absolved or condemned: though he defends his innocence in the chorus, the rhythms trickily speed up and then ease back. Together with the convoluted unison singsong of "Wanna be Startin' Somethin'" and the anti-macho warning of "Beat It," "Bille Jean" suggests that Michael Jackson has more on his mind than blaming it on the boogie.

Thriller may charm us a notch less than the hermetically sealed Off the Wall, but what it's after is more rewarding. Its wariness is a blunt admission of the impossibility of sustaining its predecessor's non-stop party: God knows, after seven million copies sold, many performers would try. In upping the anguish—however hedged and glossy—lurking behind Jackson's effortless guile, this album aims to close the gap between his starry-eyed solo career and the worry he reveals when he lets down his guard in the company of his Crothers. So in this context, the contrived bankability of a Top 10 single like "The Girl is Mine," is depressing. With its cute "doggone"s and glazed tug-of-war between Jackson and Paul McCartney, the song is precisely the celebrity-mongering that Off the Wall was too classy to give in to.

Jackson and Jones's clout buys them commodities more useful than special guests. Toto may indeed be a dog of their own, but under Jones's tutelage, he stops barking long enough to lead Jackson through the snaky declaration of independence of "Human Nature." What else are session men good for besides doing what they're told? Similarly, Rod Temperton may stuff too many flashy effects—abrupt rhythmic turnabouts, boppish changes—into a song for his band, Heatwave, to handle, but his bright trifles ("Thriller," "Baby Be Mine," "The Lady in My Life") keep Jackson's boundless voice alert and occupied by maneuvering the songs' melodic twists. With made-in-the-studio textures that resonate and anonymous contributions that gather a life of their own, Thriller spotlights Jackson feverishly even as it forces him to direct the hired hands.

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