When Michael Jackson died almost exactly five years ago as of this writing, just about everyone who cared about his music likely knew in an instant we’d be seeing a bevy of posthumous album releases over the ensuing decade. Halfway into that decade, we’ve already seen two posthumous albums that are full of hits and misses. Alongside it all, we keep hearing about how money-grubbing the whole enterprise is when Jackson seemed to prove himself as a Stanley Kubrick in the recording studio. The material being released now seems up for debate whether he’d really want it released or not, even though it’s hard to deny the earworm worthiness of a few songs.
The ubiquitous single “Love Never Felt So Good” may arguably be the best of the posthumous tracks released so far. However, if you’ve happened to hear the Deluxe Edition of the new Jackson release “Xscape” (online rather than spending the extra money for the CD), you’ll have a chance to hear a raw version without the modern audio dressing. Once you hear it, you realize what the potential could have been in being a mere outtakes album rather than a legitimate studio release.
Going raw and acoustic for an album seems to have lost its way after having a bit of a renaissance in the music industry for a number of years. Back when MTV’s “Unplugged” series became so popular, we saw a whole series of albums from A-list artists paring everything down to just a piano or a guitar. Even The Beatles released their iconic “Let it Be” album in the original raw acoustic form before the Phil Spector over-production took over.
Despite “Unplugged” still airing in occasional specials, it seems we’ve gone back to the studio wall of sound as perhaps a lame attempt at re-capturing everyone’s limited attention. And on posthumous releases, you’ll find more remixes than anyone can readily assimilate. Remix artists seem to be considering themselves to be an official part of the artistic intelligentsia, despite most remixes sounding like something we can create in a few minutes on our own digital music programs.
You’ll find more than a few critics who say the same about the new mixes on Michael Jackson’s unreleased material. While the dressed up version of “Love Never Felt So Good” isn’t bad, the raw and uncut version is even more interesting and revealing in Jackson’s vocals. We never really heard him sing with just piano backup, and it could have been the central role behind the entire album for something different.
With so much note of this in the media recently, will we start seeing more posthumous releases from other artists in raw form to differentiate between artistic album and outtakes?
The Lost Art of Enjoying Outtakes for What They Are
It used to be that outtakes on boxed sets in tribute to a particular departed artist were some of the highlights of the entire album. That’s because you could actually hear the nuances of the vocals and studio chatter to get an idea of what it was like to be there. In most cases, those outtakes or lost songs were even better than what the artist released, sometimes giving considerable mystery as to why they abandoned them.
Jackson’s “Love Never Felt So Good” is one of those songs that could have been a smash had it been released 30 years ago. Now it has a bit of a haunting out-of-time sound that’s even more so when hearing the piano acoustic track. Will someone see reason eventually and enable more Jackson releases as outtake albums rather than something appearing to be finalized?
With marketing overly complicated, it probably isn’t going to happen. Plus, with people not always spending money on the deluxe editions, the included original versions as bonus tracks may not even be heard as much as they should.
That’s what made being Michael Jackson more complicated in the world of marketing. A deceased artist from 50 years ago could easily get an outtakes album out now that isn’t touched up and still garner a bestseller. Jackson is stuck in that bridge between 30 years ago and today when music was more of a mass-produced marketing machine. His songs are still easy to tinker with to a point where it’s really not a Michael Jackson product completely and just him capitulating from the grave.