About two-thirds of the way through his much-awaited new album, "Dangerous" (Epic 45400, arriving in record stores Tuesday), Michael Jackson offers an itchy, anxious song of romantic disquietude called "Who Is It."
This is familiar ground for Jackson. After all, some of his most memorable performances have chronicled similar situations, and it's not too hard to find parallels between this song and earlier efforts. Like "Heartbreak Hotel," it finds the singer beset by doubts and demons, tortured by emotions that have spun totally out of his control; like "Billie Jean," it finds him articulating his confusion in gasps and gulps over an ominous, insistent bass line.
But unlike either, "Who Is It" seems empty, emotionally inert. Jackson's performance, for all its obvious polish, tends to hold the listener at arm's length, as if the anguish he's expressing is some private pleasure, not to be shared with anyone. So instead of wanting to dive back into the song, and be happily swept away with its rhythms and mystery, we're left high and dry.
That's typical of "Dangerous" -- typical, that is, of what's wrong with the album. Catchy as its songs often are, dazzling as its production frequently is, what "Dangerous" ultimately delivers are hollow hits, musical spectacle of the shallowest sort.
It's not bad, mind you, but it's definitely no "Thriller." And though it's likely to sell well -- Jackson is too canny to release an album that's anything less than immensely marketable -- it's unlikely this album will ever mean much to anyone, with the possible exception of Jackson's accountants.
That's a shame, too. Because what pushed "Thriller" to the top of the all-time best sellers list wasn't its insinuating rhythms, or the way it crossed stylistic lines to appeal to a variety of pop fans (although both played a part); rather, it was the way singles like "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" touched a nerve with listeners across the board. "Thriller" wasn't just entertainment -- it was art, a work of creative vitality and emotional validity.
"Dangerous," by contrast, is a mere artifact, a statement of craft and calculation.
As a display of marketing expertise, it certainly is stunning. Aware that the slick R&B style he has relied on in the past is too dated to have much street credibility, he abandoned longtime collaborator Quincy Jones and cut much of this album with Teddy Riley, whose new jack swing sound has powered the likes of Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown and Heavy D.
Not wanting to push too far in that direction, however, Jackson hedges his bets by also including tunes with rock overtones (gotta keep those MTV kids listening!) as well as conventionally tuneful pop treacle (don't wanna disappoint the MOR crowd!). It's as if he wants desperately to be all things to all buyers.
Trouble is, he ends up forgetting to be himself. In fact, one of the strangest things about "Dangerous," at least for its first few songs, is how little it sounds like a Michael Jackson album.
"Jam," for instance, is pure Riley, from its densely layered rhythm tracks right down to the title (which seems an echo of "Teddy's Jam," the Guy single that is Riley's trademark tune). And though Jackson has little difficulty meeting the purely percussive demands of its backing track, his vocal ends up as just another component in the rhythm's circuitry; on some levels, Heavy D's rap stands out more than Jackson's vocal does.
Much the same can be said of "She Drives Me Wild," "Remember the Time" and "Why You Wanna Trip On Me." All three songs are wonderfully propulsive, boasting precisely the sort of deep bass and even deeper groove guaranteed to move almost any listener (well, physically, at least). But only "Remember the Time" makes much use of Jackson's strengths as a stylist, because the other two are far too interested in boosting the beat to give the singer much melody to work with.
That's not to say that "Dangerous" is melodically deficient, of course. Jackson has always had a weakness for slow, soaring melodies, and devotes almost a third of the album to the sort of lush, tuneful balladry that allows his voice the full range of its expressive power.
If only he had something to express! Although Jackson takes pains to address the ills of the world, he seems incapable of any but the most platitudinous sentiments, reducing even the most ambitious of his ideas to the well-meaning inanity of greeting card doggerel. "Will You Be There," for instance, is marvelous to hear, from its symphonic introduction (filched, without credit, from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth) to its gently rolling gospel groove. But its lyrics lack the metaphoric unity of real gospel music, leaving this appeal to faith appallingly unfocused, as if Jackson isn't entirely sure what it is he wants us to believe.