Will Michael Jackson's new album revitalize his career?
In a word: No.
The cumbersomely titled "HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I," released yesterday, has some great songs on it - but they're all on the first disc, which contains 15 of his greatest hits, digitally remastered and sounding better than ever.
The songs on the second disc pale in comparison. There isn't even one great tune among the 15 new songs (which include two covers) - although videos will probably help some of them become big hits. There are moments when Jackson's gifts shine through, when his singing or songwriting saves a tune, but not enough of them to raise "HIStory" above mediocrity.
Almost all the new songs have a familiar ring to them. They sound like retreads of his past material. For someone who almost always has risen to new heights with every new album or video, this is surprising. At a time when he should be moving ahead, he's regressing.
The overall tone of the new songs is one of defiance. Obviously Jackson is attempting to turn around all the bad publicity of the past few years, related to allegations of child abuse (he never has been charged with a crime).
Strangely, for a man who has just gotten married, after what must be assumed was his very first love affair, there are no outright love songs, except for perhaps "Stranger in Moscow," a pretty ballad interspersed with sounds of rain.
It's hard to tell if it is a love song, because the words are not always intelligible, and the lyrics are not printed in the 50-page booklet that comes with the album. There is plenty of room for celebrity endorsements, flattering photos (including Jackson with four U.S. presidents), four pages listing his awards and lots of name-dropping, but room for the lyrics to only three of the new songs.
The best new cut is the first single, "Scream," a duet with his sister Janet (although you can't tell which is which) that already has gotten widespread airplay. It's one of several songs in which Jackson lashes out at his critics and accusers. The refrain of "Stop pressurin' me!" is compelling, and he spits out the lyrics with drama and purpose. The song has bite and infectious energy.
However, after all his protestations that he cares deeply about children, why does he gratuitously use the F-word in the song? It's probably because he wants to sound tough, but it's unnecessary. He uses a milder profanity in another song, and a rapper utters a racial epithet in yet another (a word regularly used by rappers but considered an insult when used by non-blacks).
And then there is his already controversial use of anti-Semitic epithets in one song. It makes you wonder: Is there no one in the Jackson camp who confronts him when he does something stupid? He may have lived a sheltered life, but there really is no excuse for using terms like "Jew me" and "kike" in a pop song, unless you make it clear you are denouncing such terms, and do so in an artful way.
Other songs of defiance include "They Don't Care About Us," in which Jackson allies himself with all children, equating attacks against him as attacks against them; "This Time," in which he says he has been "falsely accused"; "D.S.," apparently aimed at the prosecutor who investigated the child-abuse charges; "Money," apparently directed at the father of the boy who made the charges, and to whom Jackson paid a multi-million dollar settlement; "Tabloid Junkie," a disingenuous attack on sensational news stories about him, most of which he planted; and "Childhood," a sad, self-pitying song, but quite moving and beautiful.
"HIStory" will, of course, shoot to the top of the charts and stay there for weeks, maybe months. But will it have anything close to the impact of past releases? It seems doubtful, given the lack of great material.