Un-Dangerous

Michael Jackson is lost in the mix of his new album
By STEPHANIE ZACHAREK  |  January 8, 2007

This article originally appeared in the November 29, 1991 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

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On the subject of Michael Jackson, everyone’s a psychoanalyst. Surely he’s sick. Why else would an attractive young black man have his nose surgically narrowed, his eyes molded into an almond shape, his skin whitened? The space-age sleep chamber and the failed attempt to buy the Elephant Man’s remains are now the stuff of show-biz legend (even if they were just elaborately  twisted publicity stunts). We stroke our pasted-on psychoanalyst’s goatees as we cluck-cluck over the figure in the corner of Liz Taylor’s latest wedding picture, a pale, stiff Pinocchio with a chiseled nose.

Lugging all that baggage through the plodding, repetitive, hook-laden mess of Dangerous (Epic), we can only hope that our knowledge of Jackson’s weirdness doesn’t make us hear things that aren’t there. A few items are definite: rap, gospel and newjack swing all get stirred into the pot, and Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash guests on a few tracks. Produced by newjack wiz Teddy Riley (of Guy), the record is an elastic vine of sound that tries to take hold and refuses to let go. Yet in spite of (or, more likely, because of) its relentless grabbing, Dangerous is Jackson’s most alienating record – strange, considering that LPs like 1979’s Off the Wall and 1982’s Thriller so effortlessly glided into our consciousness.

The songs here are needlessly stretched out and repetitive: many of the 14 tracks clock in at close to six minutes — fine for grooving, but even so, not very inspiring as dance music (nothing propels you to your feet the way “Billie Jean” did) and a real test of endurance for anyone who just wants to listen. Even when Jackson writes a decent line, it’s often repeated so many times within the same song that its meaning drops away like the petals of a dying chrysanthemum. “Who Is It,” a stunningly bitter reflection on betrayal, almost works. Jackson’s simmering anger loses its kick, though, after you’ve heard the lines “It doesn’t see to matter/And it doesn’t seem right/ ‘Cause the will has brought no fortune/Still I cry alone at night” 12 times.

Too often Jackson clutches at profundity and only tears it to shreds with his swipes. The lovely “Will You Be There,” featuring the Andrae Crouch Singers, sounds like a lullaby for a listless, troubled soul. With his plea of “Carry me/Like you are my brother/Love me like a mother,” Jackson seems to beg for understanding. But his choked sobs during the song’s closing lines (“In the promise of another tomorrow/I’ll  never let you part/For you’re always in my heart”) only make you wary. Most of us remember Jackson’s teary, Oscar-bid performance on Off the Wall’s “She’s Out of My Life” “Will You Be There?” makes you wonder: can he turn those sobs on and off at will?

And how can you not feel like a shrink when this notoriously asexual singer performs a song with the titillating title “In the Closet”? Like much of Dangerous, the song tells us both more and less than Jackson thinks. It’s not the words but his vocals (delivered over an earthy, hypnotic groove) that tell the story. He peppers the lyrics with that trademark gasp as if it were buckshot, his voice sounding hungry and wild, but he’s pouring all that passion into the task of keeping his zipper up. The words themselves ("Just promise me/Whatever we say/Whatever we do to each other/For now we take a vow to just/Keep it in the closet”) only hint at what really goes on behind those wide-open brown eyes.

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