“Xscape,” the new album credited to Michael Jackson, revolves around the familiar voice of a ghost mourned worldwide. That voice is airborne and supple, tenderly concerned, playful and percussive; then it grows increasingly tense, distraught, desolate, embittered. Jackson’s voice is a precious digital keepsake; it’s also, on many of the tracks, the only part of his latest songs that Jackson ever heard.
“Xscape,” which will be released Tuesday, represents the bionic Jackson: an identifiable remnant of the man encased in gleaming, contemporary technology. The voice, the words and the melodies on “Xscape” are Jackson; nearly all of the rest was built around them. Something of the flesh-and-blood original persists, but it’s now inseparable from the new machinery.
No one is claiming that “Xscape” is the album Jackson would have made had he survived to finish rehearsing and performing his 50 scheduled comeback shows in London. “Michael Jackson’s official canon – the albums, performances and short films he oversaw and realized during his lifetime – is complete,” the liner notes to “Xscape” say. He died June 25, 2009, during a final stretch of rehearsals, from an overdose of Propofol, the anesthetic he had been using as a sleep aid.
Unlike “Michael,” the posthumous collection released in 2010 that included relatively recent outtakes, “Xscape” offers no glimpse of anything Jackson wrote after his last finished studio album, “Invincible,” in 2001. The Michael Jackson estate has been digging deeper into the archives, finding every scrap it can salvage. The eight songs on “Xscape” date initially from 1983 to 1999 although Jackson worked on some of them again in the 2000s.
The job that “Xscape” sets for itself, in an ungainly term from the liner notes, is to “contemporize” the songs – that is, to update them for the pop market and the radio environment of 2014. To do so, the album’s productions have extracted Jackson’s vocals – he was known to record dozens of takes at a time, giving producers plenty of options – and surrounded them with new backup arrangements, treating his songs like the kind of a cappella tracks that hip-hop and dance music producers regularly build remixes around.
A major investment is at stake: “Xscape” is the latest product of a reported seven-year, $250 million dollar deal between the Jackson estate and Sony Music.
By design or not, the songs on “Xscape” trace a poignant narrative arc: from blissful romance to thoughts of exploitation and betrayal to a final, desperate longing for escape. At the beginning, a euphoric Jackson croons “Love Never Felt So Good” over rolling, gospelly piano chords, played by the song’s co-writer, Paul Anka; warm and tuneful, it’s the album’s introductory single in John McClain’s string-laden version and a lighter, disco-revival production by Timbaland that wedges in an appearance by Justin Timberlake, poaching a verse. “Slave to the Rhythm” (not the Grace Jones song) and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” worry about the exploitation of women and girls. By the time “Xscape” ends the album, Jackson has moved into his bleak, scratchy, heavy-breathing, staccato mode as he sings about being pressured by relationships, the media and “the system.”
The selections for “Xscape” were winnowed from two dozen unreleased songs that had full-length vocal takes, a sign that Jackson thought the material was worthwhile. But Jackson’s original intentions died with him; what remains are waveforms.
The executive producer of “Xscape,” and the hands-on producer for most of the songs, is Timbaland, a worthy choice; one song each was also assigned to McClain, a manager of the estate; Stargate; and Rodney Jerkins, who radically improved “Xscape,” a song he started with Jackson in 1999.
“Xscape” does polish up these old songs, even if it wipes away some of Jackson’s ideas, like the big-band tango Jackson invoked on the demo of “Blue Gangsta.” And Jackson’s voice – deliberately pushed up front in the mixes – is more vivid, and less processed-sounding, than it was on his later albums, whether he’s exulting or imploring or grunting or whooping.
Yet it’s clear why Jackson shelved the songs on “Xscape.” They’re near misses, either not quite as striking as what he released or lesser examples of ideas he exploited better elsewhere.
Jackson’s posthumous handlers are encyclopedic and savvy about what he left behind, but it’s all retrospective. Some Jackson rejects would do other musicians proud. But Jackson was competing with himself, and his estate’s projects so far suggest that his best music was released during his lifetime. Archivists and producers can restyle Jackson’s work and “contemporize” him, up to a point. But with every bionic mechanism at their disposal, they can’t resurrect him.