Michael Jackson lives on
In the final years of Michael Jackson's life, as he drifted between rented and borrowed homes from Los Angeles to Ireland to the Middle East, rumour had it that he never stopped recording, though it was fairly obvious he had lost the knack of putting out records.
Aborted latter-day projects included an album with the Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am, sessions with Akon and an interminably delayed charity single for the victims of Hurricane Katrina; not so much Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' as can't seem to finish anything.
There was to be no new music in Jacko's lifetime. In fact, he released only two new albums in the last 17 years of his life, and neither added much to his legacy: 1995's HIStory was paranoid, objectionably grandiose and arrived hiding behind a disc of his old hits; 2001's Invincible is almost impossible to recall.
In death, Jackson is shaping up to be substantially more musically productive than he was in the last two torrid decades of his life. If that sounds tasteless, blame his estate, which has wasted no time getting stuck into his archive of unreleased material.
Last March, Jackson's executors signed a deal to release seven posthumous albums in the next decade. For the sake of his recorded legacy, we can only hope the never terribly prolific Jackson got some serious work done in those last few years.
Michael, a ten-song collection, is the first, and fears of an album made out of scraps Jacko recorded into his mobile phone fortunately prove unfounded. While Michael is no masterpiece, it is a solid album with genuine highlights, no more muddled or great than anything else he made after 1987's Bad.
Hold My Hand, an amiable Akon duet, leads the line as the first single and opening track. Not for the last time, you find yourself wondering how much Jacko you're really getting, as other voices swoop across a busy mix, but the fact that it's a half-decent pop song is something of a relief.
Quite obviously, a bevy of co-producers has crawled across these mostly recent songs, teasing unfinished tracks into full productions and employing the same kind of creative logic most of us probably would if called upon to create a posthumous Michael Jackson album from the singer's odds and ends.
They've unearthed a horror yarn, Monster, that idly recalls such hammy classics as Thriller and Bad, with the addition of a cameo from rapper 50 Cent. There's a tense Smooth Criminal soundalike in Hollywood Tonight and, on (I Can't Make It) Another Day, Lenny Kravitz contributes the kind of rock guitar Jackson previously commissioned from Eddie Van Halen, Slash and others.
Jackson's trademark vocal tics are less evident than usual. Maybe they just didn't have too many good ones on file. What they do have are some startlingly fresh moments, such as the sunny, upbeat Philadelphia soul of (I Like) The Way You Love Me, and some truly drab ones, notably the lachrymose Best Of Joy and the self-obsessed jackhammer R&B of Breaking News.
It might not be a surprise, meanwhile, that the record's two best tunes date from Jackson's fertile Eighties period. Behind The Mask, an adapted cover of a song by Japanese experimental pop group the Yellow Magic Orchestra, reminds you why Michael's musical legend persists; Much Too Soon, a stray Thriller ballad with strings and a Stevie Wonder-ish harmonica solo, is likewise made from classic stuff.
This curious project isn't so rich as to make the case that Jackson's sad death deprived us of a genius in his prime. It does, however, attest to the fact that there are interesting things in his attic, even if they do require an unspecified amount of fixing up.
Are there six more albums' worth? Let's wait and see. On this evidence, it might be a stretch.