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Album Review: Michael Jackson – This Is It

on October 30, 2009, 3:15am
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This Is It, both as a soundtrack and a documentary, exists for a number of reasons. On one level, it’s an attempt to focus and draw attention to what Michael Jackson lived for (music), and not what he did (scandal). On a more superficial level, this is Sony milking his legacy. Any true MJ fan will already own 90% of the songs that make up this two-disc set. It is, however, that 10% which justifies this album’s existence.

Early estimates suggest hundreds of original songs lie dormant on a number of hard drives. On this release, one new track, three demos, and a poem are offered up. Barring these exceptions, the tracklist is primarily made up of his hits, presented sequentially as they appear in the accompanying documentary.

It begins with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, the steadfast opener which served him well for the majority of his tours. A pulsating floor filler, the hand claps and tightly strung guitar have become trademark MJ: the small additions which take this beyond pop music. “Smooth Criminal”, arguably Bad’s strongest track, was a catalyst in the move to the frenzied new jack swing of the 80′s. The staccato beats and breathy vocals were immortalized once MJ dropped the anti-gravity lean. Like much of his music, it “clicks”. Devoid of the moonwalk, “Billie Jean” was not as essential. Without the zombie routine, “Thriller” wouldn’t be as iconic. He planned it all, keeping the aces in his sleeve, and crucially, keeping us entertained.

“Jam” builds on this concept, revolving around Jackson’s dancing. It came into its own when the video — featuring a fun “duel” between the two Michaels, Jackson and Jordan — was released. Two titans of an era (with the same initials, no less) sharing the same screen. Entertainment gold.

“Earth Song” offers Jackson at his most fragile. The environmentalist is brought to the fore, and from a musical perspective, this is a very affecting track, with some of Jackson’s best vocal work. “Human Nature” is another heartfelt ballad, showcasing the softer tones of his voice. Devoid of the overblown backing, Jackson can focus on the emotion of the song. It is during these introspective moments that we get a clear look of what he was all about; a stalwart humanitarian with a profound obsession of children, his feelings were often misconstrued. Ballads were prevalent in his career, but Jackson was always at his best when he had something to fight for. Give him an ideal, a concept of wrongdoing, and he would take to it. With the bit between his teeth, brilliance ensued: “They Don’t Really Care About Us” is a prime example, issuing a strong message but allowing MJ to do his thing. He popped, and he locked.

“You Shake My Body Down To The Ground” is an unexpected inclusion, the only Jackson 5 number included on This Is It. It holds some interest as the last song they ever performed live as a group, in 2001. “Thriller” resets the focus as the ultimate Halloween song, and one which inspired one of the best videos of all time. The hits stack up, with “Beat It” taking over the reins. Jackson penned this number one and really pushed the boundaries of pop music, featuring a guitar solo from one Eddie Van Halen. It netted a new audience for him, as a guilty pleasure for rock fans.

“This Is It”, MJ’s “latest” single, is a strange beast. Two versions are included on the disc — the original studio cut and an expansive orchestral take. The song itself is not exceptional, and draws too closely on the messianic imagery that Jackson was partial to: “I’m the light of the world”. The “Jackson Brothers” vocals are clearly recent, as is the orchestral treatment (tacked on). The original song (a 1983 duet with Anka) was titled “I Never Heard”; the Jackson estate have simply scoured his back catalogue to find a song containing the 3 words “this is it”:”The song was picked because the lyrics were appropriate because of the name Michael gave his tour.”

The second disc is the main selling point. The demos are the most interesting thing about this release, as they offer a real insight into Jackson’s creative process, generally kept behind closed doors. An acoustic interpretation of “She’s Out Of My Life” is extremely emotional. It must be one of the only tapes in existence where his voice is accompanied by a sole instrument. As with the recently unearthed “Billie Jean” demo, Jackson focuses on the general rhythm and feeling of each track rather than nailing the lyrics, emitting his “hee-hees” or screaming “woah” to get out of tight spots, and gloss over forgotten lyrics. A rough cut of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” lays down the rhythmic foundation, the bass amplified and with less of a disco-vibe. During album standout “Beat It”, we hear Jackson laying down the vocal harmonies on the chorus. These moments allow us a peek at his prodigious talent.” This is the harmonies… the vocal harmonies on the chorus of.. uh… “Beat It”. I’ll do the verses and then I’ll do the choruses.”. Easy.

“Planet Earth” was originally printed in the sleeve notes of Dangerous, but the poem penned by Jackson is now on record. It’s three minutes of child-like filler, but the ending is a neat trick. The album closes with a quintessential Michael Jackson one-liner: “With all my heart, I love you.” The world has unrequited love for Michael Jackson. One that will never fade.

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