Music Reviews
3:10 pm
Tue May 13, 2014

Is The 'Xscape' Deluxe Version Worth It? 3 Words: Michael Jackson Demos

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 7:26 pm

When he died in June 2009, Michael Jackson left behind a trove of unfinished recordings — some were released on the 2010 album Michael, while many more were left behind because they were in rough demo form. Jackson's label went through the material, then asked Timbaland and other top producers to finish the King of Pop's ideas with an album called Xscape.

When it comes to posthumous releases by major stars, the music business doesn't exactly have a stellar track record. Think about the contrived duets between Natalie Cole and her departed dad, Nat King Cole. So I approached this new collection of unreleased Michael Jackson material with caution.

There's still no mistaking that voice; that fervent intensity he brought to every line. Can't lie: It's nice to hear. Still, there's reason to wince about this project — it's devoted to material that Jackson worked on for various albums, but didn't finish or elected not to share. Making matters worse, these tracks don't represent Jackson's vision alone: Label president L.A. Reid commissioned producers to "contemporize" — his word — Jackson's demos to appeal to the current market.

But the deluxe version also includes the raw demos before they were "contemporized." Even in what sounds like a rehearsal situation, Jackson manages to convey the heart of a song. He nails all the twists of the melody. His passion sells it — you forget it's not a final take. At times, he sounds like he's thinking back to Motown days and recalling the influence of Stevie Wonder.

The set tells us something else about Michael Jackson: He struggled to escape the long shadow of Thriller. On his subsequent records, songs that sounded too similar to his hits didn't make the cut. Several of these appear on the new Xscape. These are not earth-shattering compositions, but they're solid and exhilarating in spots — certainly more than just vault scraps. You can hear Jackson really pouring energy into them, doing his best to lift them up. It's the performances that make this a worthwhile, valuable, fitting postscript to Jackson's legacy.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When he died in June 2009, Michael Jackson left behind a trove of unfinished recordings - some were released on the 2010 album "Michael," but many more were left behind. Jackson's label went through that leftover material, and asked top music producers to finish the King of Pop's ideas. The result is called "Xscape," and it's been released this week.

Reviewer Tom Moon says the Deluxe Edition includes versions of the songs in the form Jackson left them. Moon says they provide a rare glimpse into Jackson's creative process.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "XSCAPE")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (singing) Xscape. Xscape. Dark child. Xscape. Oh! Huh. Huh. Huh. Xscape. Oh!

TOM MOON, BYLINE: When it comes to posthumous releases by major stars, the music business doesn't exactly have a stellar track record. Think about the contrived duets between Natalie Cole and her departed dad, Nat King Cole. So I approached this new collection of unreleased material from the King of Pop with caution.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "XSCAPE")

JACKSON: (singing) No matter where I am I see my face around. Then they ask on my name and push from town to town. Don't have a place to run for there's no need to hide. I got to find a place so I won't a hide away. Escape. Gotta get away from the system loose in the world today. Escape the pressure that I face from relationships that's gone away. Escape...

MOON: There's no mistaking that voice. That fervent intensity he brought to every line. I can't lie: It's nice to hear. Still, there's reason to wince about this project - it's devoted to material that Jackson worked on for various albums, but didn't finish, or elected not to share. Making matters worse, these tracks don't represent Jackson's vision alone: label president LA Reid commissioned producers to "contemporize" - his word - Jackson's demos to appeal to the current market. This is apparently what he meant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE GANGSTA")

JACKSON: (singing) ...don't know what I've done. Everything you've got. Things you've done to me are coming back to you. You know just what I've done. The things you've done to me. I'm the blue gangsta. What you going to do? You ain't a friend of mine. Let me go.

MOON: That might be the album's low point. Here's the album's opening track, a song written by Jackson and legendary songwriter Paul Anka. It's a sweet reminder of Jackson's talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE NEVER FELT")

JACKSON: (singing) Baby, love never felt so good. And I'd die if it ever could. Not like you hold, hold me. Oh, baby...

MOON: The Deluxe version also includes the raw demos - before they were contemporized.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMO, "LOVE NEVER FELT")

JACKSON: (singing) And I'd die if it's never mine. And I like you hold me, hold me. And the night is going to be just fine. Got to fly, got to see, got to be. I can't take it. 'Cause baby, every time I love you...

MOON: Even in what sounds like a rehearsal situation, Jackson manages to convey the heart of the song. He nails all the twists of the melody. His passion sells it - you forget it's not a final take. At times he sounds like he's flashing back to Motown days, and recalling the influence of Stevie Wonder.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE NEVER FELT" FINAL VERSION)

JACKSON: (singing) ...got to be. I can't take it 'cause baby, every time I love you in and out of my life, in, out, baby, tell me if you really love me. In and out of my life. In and out, baby. So baby...

MOON: The set tells us something else about Michael Jackson: He struggled to escape the long shadow of "Thriller." On his subsequent records, songs that sounded too similar to his hits didn't make the cut. Several of these appear on this new release. They're not earth-shattering compositions but they are solid, and exhilarating in spots, certainly more than just vault scraps.

You can hear Jackson really pouring energy into them, doing his best to lift them up. It's those performances that make this a valuable postscript to Jackson's legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CHILDREN ARE")

JACKSON: (singing) Do you know where your children are? Because it's now twelve o'clock...

CORNISH: The latest from Michael Jackson is called "Xscape." Our critic, Tom Moon, reviewed the Deluxe Edition of the album.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.