In an age where artists from Kanye West to Radiohead drop albums unannounced on the internet, the idea of a listening session – where accredited journalists are invited for an early eavesdrop before release – feels remarkably twee, reminiscent of the opulent ’80s in which Jackson made his fortune. And so it was that Time Out arrived at trendy Dubai bar Qbara on a weekday afternoon, obligingly turning over our phones at the door to mingle over canapés with fellow journos ahead of The Grand Unveil.
But first, Sony Middle East’s general manager Mike Fairburn took the mic to explain Reid’s vision, recruiting mastermind producer Timbaland, amongst others, to ‘contemporise’ these archive recordings for a fresh 2014 audience. Recorded between 1983 and 2001, each of these eight unearthed recordings are tunes Michael had attempted multiple times. These, we were told, were the songs ‘we would be interested in hearing, the songs Michael would want us to hear’.
After such ceremony, it couldn’t help but feel slightly anticlimactic when the music began. First, we were told we would hear just four songs; later the record was played in its entirety. All the while Michael looked unnervingly down on us, the assembled journos shuffling uncomfortably beneath a huge projection of the album cover, Jackson’s airbrushed face seemingly emerging from a silver fruit bowl.
The opener, lead single ‘Love Never Felt so Good’, is instantly catchy, mixing Off the Wall-era soul with Timbaland’s trademark touch. It reminded me of Justin Timberlake even before JT’s parachuted-in vocal part, a dancefloor filler which feels both fresh and vintage. ‘A Place with No Name’ is lumpy by comparison. Opening with Jackson’s trademark vocal ticks, a dark and dirty bass patch drives the verses, more Depeche Mode than ‘Smooth Criminal’, and by the repetitive outro, Jackson’s vocal clearly looped, it’s easier to see why this sketch may have been left on the shelf.
‘Chicago’ takes the ‘contemporisation’ process further, slapping on a slick radio-friendly urban groove, more hip-hop than MJ ever went. By ‘Blue Gangsta’ Timbaland’s influence is overwhelming, the meticulous assault of urban beats leaving little room for the intended melody. Title track ‘Xscape’, however, is a vintage Jacko hit-in-waiting, leftover from 2001’s swangsong Invincible, and clearly more malleable to modernisation.
Much painstaking effort has been taken to avoid the pitfalls that critically mauled Michael (2010) fell into. Throughout the session the arrangements shone, but I couldn’t help wondering if more regard could (should?) have been paid to the artist’s original intentions.
A 22-minute video, screened after the listening session, shed ample light on this. Cringely self-congratulatory, Timbaland, Reid and a cast of other collaborators took turns to slap each others’ backs shamelessly, at pains to justify the posthumous tinkering they’ve run studio riot with. ‘If I wasn’t supposed to do it, it wouldn’t sound this good,’ offers Reid. ‘Our job is to put our greatness with [Michael’s] greatness, and be great,’ adds Rodney Jerkins.
The video even spells out – in glaringly staged, for-beginners clips – how this ‘greatness’ was born. Rolling about with camaraderie and self belief, the producers play clips of the original demos, followed by Timbaland’s steroid-packed reproductions. It’s hard not to laugh when the producer summons the supernatural for vindication. ‘I hear [Michael] talk to me,’ he says earnestly. ‘His spirit reached through me... to give me the okay.’
Most tellingly, ‘Tim’ admits he threw the original instrumental recordings out without listening to them, starting fresh from Michael’s a capella vocal track (why?!). ‘I don’t brag,’ he brags, ‘but I’m a bad man’. A clip of the original ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ (strangely on the shelf, that one), reveals a historically fascinating acoustic guitar-led, country-ish number. Timbaland’s take is an avalanche of beats and blips, circa 2014.
You can’t help the feeling that if the recordings were good enough in the first place, then beyond some respectful touching up, all this re-production is unnecessary. The best of Michael’s music sounds timeless, and if these songs stood up, they wouldn’t need tampering with so. Worse – the tampered recording risk being dated far more quickly than the originals, which at least have biographical intrigue for fans.
Thankfully, you can make up your own mind, with the CD Deluxe Edition coming complete with the original demos alongside the reproductions. And for that we are thankful. There’s no denying the passion and talent Timbaland and co have put into the project and, regardless of the aesthetics, some of the production work ranks alongside his prime. And perhaps that’s what this project best offers – an essential masterclass for would be producers and musicians. An insight into how much can be added, subtracted, and the role of the producer in modern pop today.
And for everyone else? Musically, there’s much here for both fans and the curious to enjoy, and from a first listen we’d suggest there’s at least three tunes that rank, if not alongside Jackson’s best material, then certainly in its slipstream. But Reid’s drastic ‘contemporisation’ project feels an unnecessary beast at best, and pure sacrilege at worst. But as we said at the outset, we’re here to talk music, not morals. And musically, folks, this is a sandwich, not a salad.