Music Review: Michael Jackson - Xscape (Deluxe Edition)

By , Contributor
As far as fake Michael Jackson albums go, Xscape isn’t all that bad. A flock of producers (most notably Timbaland, credited on five of the album’s scant eight tracks) were brought in to “contemporize” a compilation of Jackson’s demos and partially-finished tracks assembled by L.A. Reid. The vocals were originally recorded between 1983 and 1999 and as such they don’t hang together particularly convincingly. Jackson’s singing style changed drastically over the years, with the sweetness heard on “Love Never Felt So Good” giving way to the edgy, darker tones of the title track. But the material is strong, even if there’s no true lost classic in the bunch.

Reid and company insist these songs fit together as one sustained piece, having done everything possible to smooth the sound out with contemporary synths, beats, and programming. The idea to present a “new” Michael Jackson album five years after the legend’s passing, utilizing recordings not deemed release-worthy in the first place, is questionable enough to begin with. But listening to the various producers, displaying boundless ego and self-congratulatory glad-handing, talking about how they were “updating” Jackson’s original recordings in order to make them “listenable” should be enough to churn any fan’s stomach. The audacity on display in the interview featurette (included on a DVD that’s accompanies the deluxe edition) is positively galling.

But there is a saving grace. The deluxe edition includes all eight songs in their original, un-doctored form. After hearing and absorbing the “new” mixes in all their unnecessary gaudiness, the relative simplicity of the originals is truly a revelation. Even the best of the “new” productions, an Off the Wall-friendly, bass-heavy treatment of “Love Never Felt So Good,” pales in comparison to the vocal/piano duet original. The compelling narrative of the “A Horse with No Name” rewrite (America’s Dewey Bunnell is co-credited), “A Place with No Name,” can be more easily focused on than in Stargate’s update. In fact, the new version attempts to obliterate America’s source melody in favor of a gurgling synth riff that sounds conspicuously like “Another Part of Me.”

The Bad-era “Loving You,” a melodic, mid-tempo ballad, probably could’ve been a hit single back in the day. The funkier rhythms of “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Xscape” are so much cleaner in their original form, before they were embellished with all manner of squiggly, superfluous ornamentation. Second-guessing an artist’s original intentions is always a risky proposition. In the case of Xscape, the revisionism washed all the charm and vitality out of Jackson’s original work. Fans can’t be blamed for wanting as much previously-unheard Michael Jackson music as possible (there was also some buried treasure included on 2012’s Bad 25 reissue), but everyone should be mindful of what they’re accepting as the genuine article.

Kudos to Epic for making the original versions available on the deluxe edition of Xscape. Also commendable is the liner notes booklet, which makes the new producer’s intentions clear and offers credits for both versions of each song. Hopefully the same decision will be made for any future releases culled from the vault of Michael Jackson.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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