Saturday, April 30, 2016

Classic Album Review: Michael Jackson – Off The Wall (1979, 2016 Deluxe Edition)

Whatever you made of his dysfunctional personal life and some of his questionable choices, Michael Jackson was a once-in-a-generation pop genius. That part can't really be denied. His musical legacy speaks for itself.

I've written before about how Jackson's death in 2009 placed focus firmly back on his music. It was welcome development, in as much as it's ever possible to find a silver lining where the cloud of tragic early death is concerned. And so, some seven years on, space, distance, and time to reflect has offered us the chance to view things with a little more clarity - sans the daily dose of negativity provided by a predatory tabloid media intent on reporting his every move. What we're left with is a rather incredible body of work.

Thriller is, of course, the album most readily associated with Jackson. It is, after all, the biggest selling album of all-time, and that mid-Eighties period from Thriller's release in 1982 through to the Bad album in 1987 unquestionably represents something of a commercial peak for Michael Jackson. As successful as those landmark albums were, I don't buy the notion that either album found Jackson at his creative best. I'm of the view that 1979's Off The Wall was a superior work, and not just because it's the album which effectively launched his solo career. Or at least phase two, or the adult phase, of his solo career - Jackson having released four "solo" albums between 1972 and 1975 while still a member of the Jackson 5.

Off The Wall was his first release on Epic, and his first with producer Quincy Jones. The label change was significant because all of his previous work had been released under the Motown banner, with that label being notoriously strict in terms of maintaining creative control. The presence of Quincy Jones was a major development too, and the producer would go on to become a genuine confidante and mentor for Jackson over many years. The album also yielded Jackson's first Grammy.
But more than any of that, Off The Wall was the album that best captured Jackson at his youthful devil-may-care exuberant best. It felt like a coming-of-age release, a breakout for a young man whose talent and ambition clearly outstripped that of his brothers. This was the album where the boy became a man, a solo artist, and a global superstar in his own right.

It's certainly one of the first albums I can recall that had no obvious filler (within my admittedly very limited album scope at that time - I was practically a child myself when I discovered it). Or to put it another way, one of the first where every track had the potential to be released as a single - and five of the ten tracks did become singles, with opener 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough' being the jewel in Jackson's metaphorical crown.

Actually, has there ever been a more joyous opening to an album than the fateful first thirty seconds of 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough'? ... the "force", you know, it really does have a lot of power ... (*your blogger does his best MJ squeal for full effect*).

Feelin' The Force
That track itself stands as perhaps the definitive representation of Jackson's desire to break out and take things to a whole new level - the sense of youthful passion and unbridled freedom barely contained within 'Don't Stop' was something Jackson would struggle to replicate on later work (with arguably, large doses of outright cynicism creeping in over time, particularly in later years - see ‘Scream’ for just one obvious example).
Yet for all that Off The Wall was about Jackson breaking free - from the constraints of family and Motown - he got quite a lot of help along the way, with ‘Don’t Stop’ being one of only two Jackson originals on the album - the other being ‘Working Day And Night’. It was heavyweight help too, not just from Quincy Jones, but with song-writing contributions coming from Paul McCartney (‘Girlfriend’), Stevie Wonder (‘I Can’t Help It’), and Carole Bayer Sager (‘It’s The Falling In Love’). Rod Temperton (of chart funkers Heatwave) offered up second single ‘Rock With You’, and album closer ‘Burn This Disco Out’. Ultimately though, Jackson was able to stamp his own mark on each of these tunes, which is a measure of just how good Off The Wall was (and remains).

There’s also something quite special about the purity of Jackson’s voice in 1978/1979 when Off The Wall was recorded, with ‘She’s Out of My Life’ providing one of the more dramatic moments on the album, and certainly a genuine highlight in terms of vocal performance.

2016’s Deluxe edition is something of an oddity among so-called “legacy” releases in that it doesn’t contain any new or additional music. Rather, the standard album, albeit with spruced-up packaging, is accompanied by a DVD containing Spike Lee’s absorbing documentary ‘Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off The Wall’, which covers exactly what it says on the box.

The documentary is really quite specific to that mid-to-late Seventies period of Jackson’s life, so anyone expecting a career-spanning overview will be disappointed. And that’s perfectly fine, because Spike Lee digs very deep, examining the difficult transition from child prodigy to global superstar and all of the many peripheral factors surrounding that. How Jackson went about re-establishing himself as a credible artist in the wake of his departure from Motown. How something like the Jackson 5 cartoon TV series had adversely impacted on the public perception of what Jackson represented, or who he was, for example. That path was far from smooth, and the documentary is all the more essential for the depth of detail and context Spike Lee is able to provide.

There’s great concert footage from the era - some exhilarating stuff featuring Michael fronting The Jacksons, with the family band still very much a going concern during the making of Off The Wall (and well beyond). Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder contribute interview snippets, as do various members of the Jackson family, while the more contemporary likes of Pharrell Williams, Questlove, John Legend, and Mark Ronson are on hand to offer perspective on why the album is special to each of them. Why individual tracks are personal favourites etc. There’s discussion around the background of various tracks and the production processes for each; how the individual parts contribute to the greater whole.

And what a “whole” it is! Yes, Thriller is the one people will always refer to as Jackson’s masterpiece, and it’s hard to argue with sales or numbers alone, but without Off The Wall - and I’d argue it has aged better - there would have been no Thriller. It really is as simple as that.


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