And then came Thriller (1982). So much of the discussion of this remarkable record has centered on its commercial milestones--the 40 million albums sold in its initial chart run, its seven Top 10 hits, its pioneering role in desegregating MTV and commercial radio--and on the mythic, Elvis- and Beatles-caliber stardom to which Jackson ascended in its aftermath. But take away all of Thriller's commercial and sociological import, banish for a moment the indelible video images and visions of Jackson's moonwalk glide, and what you are left with is one of the most exciting and rigorous pop records ever made. Its songs are expertly calibrated little machines; just listen to how the components of "Billie Jean"--the thumping backbeat and bass line, the spooky background vocals, the sour little trumpet figure that answers Jackson's vocal in the chorus, the string shivers, the stiff funk guitar strumming--come together to create an ideally eerie and austere sound. Scrutinize Thriller's liner notes and you'll discover that "Billie Jean," like the album's other best songs--"Beat It," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "The Girl Is Mine"--was written and, for the most part, arranged by Jackson himself. The biggest pop star of the 1980s was also its leading auteur.
What is most striking about Thriller, nearly a quarter-century after its release, is the pall that hangs over it. Paternity suits, gang violence, horror movie dread, betrayals, paranoia, nervous breakdowns--these are the gentle themes treated on this record that everyone and his grandmother bought and danced to. "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" sounds for all the world like a party tune, but listen closer: "It's too high to get over/Too low to get under/You're stuck in the middle/And the pain is thunder/You're a vegetable/Still they hate you..../You're just a buffet/They eat off of you." It's quite a shift from the beatific mood of Off the Wall, and the gloom never really lifted. Time and again, Jackson has returned to themes of violence, terror, repulsion, sexual anxiety, implacable sadness. Consider just a handful of song titles: "Bad," "Dangerous," "Dirty Diana," "Leave Me Alone," "Blood on the Dance Floor," "Scream," "In the Closet," "Cry," "The Lost Children," "Threatened." Few death-metal bands are so relentlessly grim.
The story of Jackson's post-Thriller career is usually narrated in terms of decline and fall, and how could it be otherwise? There was no topping Thriller, either commercially or artistically, and Jackson needn't have tried. But try he did, running through gargantuan budgets, swaddling his songs in layers of production sheen and generally pulling out all the stops in an attempt to outdo himself. It was apparently of little comfort to Jackson that Bad (1987), Thriller's follow-up, was a great (but not epochal) album, or that it sold tens of millions of copies, and it's tempting to ascribe at least some of Jackson's wacky behavior to his frustration at these failed efforts. Certainly, there was a touch of desperation in megalomaniacal gestures like branding himself the King of Pop and issuing an album cover depicting an enormous Michael Jackson statue towering against a sky of roiling clouds, to say nothing of his penchant for Michael-as-messiah anthems ("We Are the World," "We Are Here to Change the World," "Heal the World," etc.). You can't help but wonder what Jackson might have become had he, like his onetime rival Prince, been content to burrow into his own artistic vision, with little concern for whether records wound up on the hit parade.
But even Jackson's misfires and overreaches are compelling. The Ultimate Collection is a well-selected anthology of past triumphs, but for those of us who have dismissed the singer's more recent releases after just a few listens, the boxed set holds surprises. The fourth disc is drawn almost entirely from Blood on the Dance Floor (1997) and Invincible (2001), Jackson's two biggest flops, and the music is terrific. It turns out that Jackson has dealt with hip-hop rather better than most singers of his generation. Beat- and sample-driven songs like "Blood on the Dance Floor" (1997) and "Unbreakable" (2001) sound contemporary but not desperately trendy, and his brutishly staccato singing works well in these more densely rhythmic settings. And Jackson's ballad singing has never sounded better. "Beautiful Girl," a previously unreleased demo recorded just last year, finds Jackson gliding over the sparsest synth and drum-machine accompaniment, and across octaves with an eeriness and finesse that recall Little Jimmy Scott. If he cared to, Jackson could be a jazz singer.
Such songs send you back to old albums with fresh ears and whet your appetite for future Jackson releases that may never come. Meanwhile, the courtroom circus drearily unfolds, and everyone--the media, certainly, and the lawyers, but above all the defendant himself, preening ridiculously for his fans outside the courthouse, flanked by Fruit of Islam bodyguards, and posting bizarre videotaped statements on his website--is conspiring to turn a hideous tragedy into just another reality-TV farce. Jackson's trial may drag on for months. His records will last longer.