Despite its lofty chart debut, Jackson's new Invincible has been the subject of widespread public ridicule – most of which seems unfounded when you actually listen to the album. Produced largely by Jackson, Rodney Jerkins (Britney, 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys), and R&B legend Teddy Riley, it's a conservative yet respectable comeback after 10 years of ill-received B-sides and dance remixes. And considering the fate of that other Hollywood wacko who last put out a real album in '91 – Axl Rose, who still hasn't gotten it together – I'd say Jackson earns points simply for showing up.
The disc's finest moments recall the fun and innocence that marked his early solo career, and his voice sounds no worse for the wear. He starts off with the first single, "You Rock My World," scoping for chicks with actor Chris Tucker; a smooth Jerkins groove kicks in after the yuks, and Jackson sings about puppy love as if it were '82. He may be play-acting, but it's a decent performance that's just as suited to today's middle of the road as yesterday's. The album opens in a more forceful style, showcasing Jerkins's neo-funk splatter and Jackson's legendary vocal tics over three standout tracks. Despite its title, "Invincible" is about a girl who's playing hard to get rather than the singer's stability in the face of his detractors (that would be "Unbreakable").
Jackson probably won't get very far in his attempts to lure a youthful audience – using Jerkins didn't help the Spice Girls much last year, and it's not as if the producer were saving all his best stuff for Britney. But there's still hope for Michael in the far less lucrative adult-contemporary market, and that's where his formidable ballad skills turn down the lights on "Break of Dawn," and old-school bedroom jam that once again recalls his girl-crazy younger self. Jackson the humanitarian is alive and well too, rounding up a youth choir for a tender waltz dedicated to all "The Lost Children."
Like most 80-minute pop albums, Invincible gets a little tedious towards the end. There's a sleepy Babyface ballad, a sleeping R. Kelly ballad, and Jackson going on and on about his "Privacy" while a bunch of shutter-bugs click frantically in the background. There's the obligatory Carlos Santana jam, which gets cosigned to the end, just like the one on the Dave Matthews Band album from earlier this year. Still, there's a good ratio of ballads to dance tracks and one particularly well-executed segue between the weepy a cappella showcase "Speechless" and the bass-heavy "2000 Watts." Professionalism sometimes outweighs passion in Jackson's music these days, and his bizarre personal life may well have done irreversible damage to his popularity. But he hasn't los his skills as an entertainer.
Britney Spears plays the FleetCenter on Sunday December 9 and Tuesday December 11. Call (617) 931-2000.