Now Michael Jackson was no Prince. His last still-alive studio album ‘Invincible’ was six years in the making and a good half of that was shonky, self-indulgent twaddle at best; it suggested a paucity of decent ideas rather than an underground dungeon system stretching the length of the Neverland ranch packed with unreleased mega-bangers to make ‘Billie Jean’ look as party-starting as These New Puritans’ ‘Field Of Reeds’. The Jackson family’s first attempt to wring his still-warm corpse for gold was 2010’s ‘Michael’, a botched rush job that largely patched together half-finished tracks written and recorded between 2007 and Jacko’s death in 2009. Critics were united in blithe disdain at its shameless shilling, while a minority of fans insisted that some of the vocals weren’t even MJ’s. It sounded less like the plink of shovel on the peak of a buried mountain of treasures and more like the rasp of a posthumous barrel being prematurely scraped.
Surprisingly, this second stab at looting the tomb fares far better. Under the guidance of Epic CEO L.A. Reid, the Bieber/Rihanna/Timberlake/Beyonce/Jay-Z axis of producers – Stargate, Rodney Jerkins, J-Roc, Timbaland – have uncovered the most vital of Jacko’s unreleased tracks from throughout his career and given them a sprightly “contemporizing”. The result is a freshly cast career retrospective very nearly worthy of the legend. Jacko’s plonked right back in his disco heyday on lead track ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ and ‘Loving You’, while ‘Chicago’ and ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ sound ultra-modern. There’s even room for a classic Jacko fantasy piece: the ‘Horse With No Name’ in space that is ‘A Place With No Name’, in which he’s guided to a mystical sci-fi free-love utopia shrouded in mist. So one for anyone who’s ever shagged against the bins round the back of Dundee Costcutter on Burns Night, there.
There are still signs of Jacko’s swift decay towards his final state as a disintegrating fifty-year-old plastic carcass tottering towards tragedy – the lisping R&B emoting of ‘Blue Gangsta’, for instance, has him sounding 157 years old and singing through troublesome dentures. But the record’s largely bereft of the mawkishness that made ‘Invincible’’s 77 minutes feel like a decade trapped in a new age Psychic Serenity seminar run by some nutter obsessed with ‘saving the children’. That guy gets an “ee-hee!” heavy slot on ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are?’ but even this portrait of underage Hollywood prostitutes and their anxious parents sizzles with modern pop glitz.
‘Xscape’ is a relentlessly upbeat rebirth; only the title track hints at Jacko’s personal discontent, a breathless catalogue of the career pressures, gold-diggers and fan intrusions that built him a sarcophagus of prescriptions. Jacko xscaped in a faulty pod, but now at least we’ve a worthy tribute.
- Director: Michael Jackson, Timbaland, Stargate, J-Roc, John McClain, Rodney Jerkins
- Record label: MJJ/Epic
- Release date: 13 May, 2014