The Man in the Distance


An odd thing about Michael Jackson is that he has a totally spectacular voice but he doesn’t feel the need to amaze us with it. At all. His favorite technique for conveying passion is to choke off his words. On dance songs he makes his voice as hard and compact as the percussion, reducing himself to icy shards and chilly wails. And when he lets loose with dazzling gospel-like displays, he undermixes these displays, letting them play in the background while drumbeats or simpler vocals take the spotlight. Or he’ll just put whispers in the front of the mix, while scaling heights in the distance.

There are two types of songs on Invincible: sentimental ballads and dance tracks. Several of the ballads are very pretty; the rest are just restrained. Of course, it would never occur to me to write or listen to lyrics like “This one’s for all the lost children, wishing them well/And wishing them home” or “You’re my daytime my nighttime/My world/You’re my life.” But even if you’re regularly moved to tears by children’s faces on milk cartons, these lyrics will probably hit you as blanks. As I said, Michael’s not throwing his voice into these songs; he’s deliberately spare, doling out gorgeousness in bits. What grabs my attention about a song like “Butterflies” (“I would give you anything baby, just make my dreams come true/Oh baby you give me butterflies”—so, would he give her, like, caterpillars in exchange? birds?) isn’t the melody but the weirdly ringing wrench-against-faucet clang on the backbeat. “Speechless” and “Cry” are very pretty, but they give the impression that Michael’s standing sideways, so as to let the beauty slide off him.

But these days—while Michael’s doing his chilly glide—Lil’ Romeo is on continual play on Radio Disney gleefully yelling “I don’t need a girlfriend” to the riff of an old Jackson 5 song, and Jay-Z’s all over everywhere else using the very same song to proclaim himself Jay-hova, and Alien Ant Farm are on the rock stations rumbling cloddily through Michael’s “Smooth Criminal,” having a blast interpolating Michael yells. And *NSync in “Pop” are suckering themselves into thinking they’re real by doing a Michael-like new-jack-restraint thing, but they nonetheless put forth more energy by twisting their voices and incorporating pops, blips, and boings from their Mr. Wizard chemistry set. So in this world of quasi-Michael expressiveness we’ve got Michael himself off on his Matterhorn doing a deliberately pale hard-snowshoe dance, and I wonder how—or if—he now registers on the popular eardrum.

He seems to have lost all interest in bouncy pop songs like “Billie Jean,” much less ravers like “Beat It” or “Give In to Me.” The closest on here is “Whatever Happens,” with its Spanish guitar and eerie whistles. It follows on from the useless “Lost Children,” and maybe he’s trying to lead us from the missing kids to “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand,” with threat in his voice and intense sha-na-na-nas in the background—which in turn sets up the scary-monster song that follows at the end of the LP, except that Michael ruins the transition by audibly thanking guest guitarist Carlos Santana, as if to say, “Look whom I’ve got on my record.” (Michael also got Rod Serling and Biggie Smalls to be guests, which says something about his clout.)

To really care about this album you have to be able to get into the pure hard sounds of the dance-track percussion and the way Michael tends to garnish them with his voice. He and Rodney Jerkins, who co-produced the dance numbers, pull in fuzzes and buzzes and whirs—the edginess of techno—truncated clangs, little frog-croaking bass notes. Back when Michael did all those spare Teddy Riley new-jack-swing tracks at the start of Dangerous, I’d thought he was trying to sound hard and contemporary and street. But now I think he’s simply attracted to that kind of sound, and he does it better this time. He’ll use strings to effectively not fill out (or not fill in) an arrangement. “You can’t touch me, ’cause I’m untouchable”—as in can’t be topped, or can’t be reached. “You can’t break me, ’cause I’m unbreakable.” So the music sounds unbreakable, too. But then on the next track, he breaks: “[She] spoke with her body/Her only goal is just to take control/I can’t believe that I can’t tell her no.” (Like back on “Billie Jean,” he said that he was not her lover. But when she called him into her room . . . )

The cover shows his face in close-up, white-on-gray, but with the right eye darkly etched, from which I get the eerie feeling that he’s looking at me rather than I at him. As always, he’s the great poet of boundary problems. He asks the paparazzi, “Why do you go through so much/To get the story you need, so you can bury me?” but then at the end of the album he’s the monster, the stalker: “You’re trapped in halls, and my face is the walls/I’m the floor when you fall, and when you scream it’s ’cause of me/I’m the living dead, the dark thoughts in your head . . . ” Eminem couldn’t have said it better (well, he could have, and has, but you get my point).

So: icy beauty, vacuous sentiment, visceral terror. A typical Michael Jackson album, but stripped of meat. I find extraordinary beauty in the fast songs, but I don’t know if it’s a beauty I’ll ever care about. The beauty in previous Michael Jackson albums found me. But sometimes this took a while: I was several months into Bad before I suddenly felt it when he sang, “He came into her apartment/He left the bloodstains on the carpet”—but once I did, much of the album seemed deft, sharp, and sad.