This article originally appeared in the December 28, 1982 issue of the Boston Phoenix
At the dead end of a decade when everyone was too discouraged to wonder if pop had a center, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall (1979) gathered up disillusioned factions of fans as confidently as it punted four singles into the Top 10. Cajoling critic and teen, black and white, half of the album's miracle was its variegated popularity. The other half was how it deserved its sales. With a slickness that breathed — which is to say that the privilege the moneyed textures evoked felt earned — Quincy Jones and a bevy of cohorts led Jackson through the ultimate candyland where all sweet dreams come true, where even the romantic loss of "She's Out of My Life" pleased with its glossy grandeur. With evocations of physicality that took on the tang of upward mobility ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"), Off the Wall presented a mythical good life both unhurried and sensual, the utopia only a consumer artifact could contain.
Yet to call a record perfect isn't necessarily a compliment, just a statement of aims realized. Although Jackson broached no troubles on Off the Wall, this is not to accuse him of a cipher's blankness. A child star who might have been one of the last products of the Motown charm school and how (in a recent issue of Interview) stands revealed as a gossip-mate of Liza Minnelli is not a cipher. A child star who was introduced to the world, in 1969, by Diana Ross and who, in his adulthood, not only mimics her vocally but can assume her slinkiness to fashion the steamy "Muscles" in her image is not a cipher. Jackson's jet-setting androgyny — along with the sexual utopia that his androgyny implies — is fueled by the equally above-it-all upper-crust evocations of Off the Wall's glinting settings.
For someone who has been pleading his way through number-one hits for more than half his life (he turned 24 last August), Jackson teases us with his elusiveness. As fans sizing up a boy forced to grow up in public, we blur the phases of his career. Jackson's at once the precocious 11-year-old declaiming "I Want You Back" on the Ed Sullivan Show and the cosmopolite dressed by Quincy Jones. He's one of a handful of performers who sustain both a solo career and membership in a group. His spotlight solo work exudes a worldly charisma that doesn't come out when he's with his brothers. But Jackson's multiple roles would be irrelevant if it weren't for his voice's ability to map every last one of them. Jackson crams his vocals full of jazzy flights (the stars eyes flutter coyly), fierce growls (the brother lends a hand), falsetto shouts (the little- boy cries), creamy coasting (the young man settles back). For workouts this complex, this full of duplicity, only the compulsively furtive Marvin Gaye and the bobbing-and-weaving Al Green can rival Jackson.
Given the melodrama of his tumbles of sighs and cackles, it's crucial that Jackson's solo records set him in adequate relief. In his early- to mid-'70s heyday, Green always had the reliable Hi rhythms to chafe and nuzzle against, and he often relied on ghostly double-tracked voices to bear the weight of his nuances. Gaye separates his voice into two — often conflicting — sets of cries and parallel rhythms. Producer Jones chooses to shadow Jackson's every move. Bass riffs often share the melodic riff of the chorus so that Jackson can bounce of them with no loss in steadiness. The bass is often pitched high, shying away from the quaking low notes of the dance floor's rudest motivations. In fact, Jones surrounds Jackson with complimentary upper-register tones to put his fanciful whispers at home: string synthesizer frills, abrupt guitar shrieks, massed choral clouds. Between the two, Jackson and Jones fashion a miraculous dancing machine that pumps bubbles. Just as adeptly, they can conjure up a balladry whose agility keeps it from bogging down.
In Thriller (Epic), Jones and Jackson never pant in vain to top Off the Wall with garish settings; they've agreed that Thriller should differ from the promenade of its predecessor. The opening track "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," spirals into confusion with Michael tossing off scary call-and-responses about "baby slowly dying" and being "a vegetable." Not exactly the high-stepping of "Girl-friend." Jackson's second collaboration with Jones lives up to its name partially because Jones has framed Jackson more economically than on Off the Wall. Fewer strings and synths whir and swoop; the guitars guard Jackson more closely than ever. The opening chant, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," channels its embarrassment of riches into rhythmic energy, rather than isolate asides. Doubled bass parts — synthesizer following Jackson, bass guitar lurking beneath—distend the percussive tattoos and horn sprays. Jackson is mimicked by a responding chorus at every turn, and he flings back their impersonations of him. By the song's end, they're tossing the chant "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" back and forth, and the song winds up as an Afro-beat rave-up complete with a bow to Manu Dibango. Thriller is at ease enough to admit other influences too. "Beat it," written by Jackson, lightens the stomp of hard rock by stuffing extra bass notes between the guitar snarls. Not only does the cameo solo by Eddie Van Halen make Jackson's hysteria seem calm, its bravado illustrates exactly what the song is railing against.