Friday, April 2, 2010

Michael Jackson's Bad: Out Of The Shadow Of Thriller

Michael Jackson's Bad
Creating a follow-up to one of the most successful and critically acclaimed albums of all time must have been an extremely daunting task even for someone as talented as Michael Jackson. There would be the inevitable comparisons to Thriller, and even if it sold well, it would still be considered a disappointment if it didn't sell in astronomical numbers and receive widespread critical acclaim. MJ set the bar extremely high with Thriller, and to surpass it would take close to a miracle. I guess after the unprecedented success of Thriller, MJ did indeed believe in miracles, as he wanted its successor to move 100 million units and have critics laud it a magnum opus, grabbing a truckload of awards in the process. MJ was a pure and genuine artist, but numbers and awards still meant a lot to him. Thus, the pressure was on MJ to produce another masterpiece that sold like gangbusters.

Five years after the release of Thriller, MJ finally dropped Bad in late August of 1987. And while the album sold incredibly well, it didn't move near the numbers that MJ had hoped for. And on top of that, critics were not falling over themselves to praise it as they had Thriller. As expected, some have dubbed Bad a disappointment, both commercially and artistically. It's a testament to MJ's massive popularity that an album which garnered five number-one singles and sold in excess of 40 million copies worldwide could still be considered a commercial disappointment. While most critics agreed that it was a top-notch album, very few, if any, said it was on the same exceptional level as Thriller.

In my opinion, Bad is a very strong album, and I never get bored of it, even upon repeated listenings. It's probably my favorite MJ album. While the album lacks world-beating classic cuts like "Billie Jean," and "Beat It," it is just as enjoyable a listening experience as its predecessor. The key to really getting into this album is to put Thriller out of your mind and approach it as a stand-alone musical statement. Approach it fresh with no unrealistic expectations, and you'll definitely enjoy it more.

One of the things that I like most about Bad is that it is made up mostly of MJ's compositions. He wrote and composed nine of the album's 11 songs. By comparison, he wrote only four songs for Thriller. I've always thought MJ's songwriting skills were underrated. He's generally praised for his singing, dancing and overall gifts as a performer, but people often forget that some of the greatest songs in his catalogue were penned by him. For Bad, MJ once again tapped Quincy Jones to produce. Jones had produced both Off The Wall and Thriller--two amazing albums that effectively showcased MJ's talents. Thus, it wasn't surprising that he brought in Jones again in hopes of recapturing some of the magic of the previous two albums.

Anyway, let's get down to the songs themselves. The album kicks off on a funky note with "Bad." The song is sort of an homage to MJ's idol/mentor James Brown ("I got soul, and I'm super bad!"), as it has a grittier and funkier sound than most of MJ's songs up the that point. To be sure, the song is not nearly as funky as Brown's combustible grooves, but it's pretty funky for MJ, a nice and unexpected departure from the more smooth R&B/pop cuts off Thriller. The Jackson-penned song has a relentless and menacing bass line, and he sings the verses in a husky growl and spits out "Shamone" with the raw soul of a chitlin' circuit blues shouter. Legendary jazz organist Jimmy Smith serves up a nasty solo, raising the song's funk quotient considerably. Smith's solo is seamlessly followed by an excellent synthesizer solo from keyboardist extraordinaire Greg Phillinganes, who was MJ's musical director on his Bad and Dangerous world tours.

"Bad" is followed by the shuffling "The Way You Make Me Feel." The song, written and composed by MJ, is an infectious slice of pop/soul. It is another example of MJ's unfailing ear for great melodies. It's one of those songs that people love to sing along with. The next cut, "Speed Demon," is a good solid groove. The song starts with an engine revving up, and MJ sings the verses in the same gritty, husky voice that he used in "Bad." Also, as in "Bad," MJ shoots for a more funky sound with this song. And the lyrics are pretty interesting. Some critics have said the lyrics have a Freudian component, claiming the song is about MJ's superego putting his id in check: "Pull over boy, and get your ticket right." This song was written and composed by MJ.

"Liberian Girl" is the first mellow jam on the album. The song has a slight island flavor to it, and MJ sings the song with intense passion. The harmonies on the chorus sound amazingly warm. I don't know why this song didn't get more play. This song was also written and composed by MJ.

On "Just Good Friends" MJ duets with Stevie Wonder, and, unfortunately, it's a bit of a disappointment. With two great talents at the helm, I expected much more than this light pop/soul fare. It should be noted that neither MJ nor Stevie contributed to the writing of this song, and perhaps that's why it sounds so bland. The spark and magic are simply missing from this track. It's just such a huge missed opportunity.

Side two opens with "Another Part of Me," a good uptempo song that advocates global unity. The song was originally used for MJ's 3D-film Captain Eo, which was shown at Disney theme parks in the '80s and '90s. Next up is "Man in the Mirror," one of MJ's most well-known songs. Written by Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard, the song's basic message is that before one can effectively bring about positive changes in the world around them, they must first look inside and better themselves. The song features some fiery, gospel-tinged singing by MJ who receives strong support from The Winans and the Andrae Crouch Choir.

MJ goes from church to passionate romance with "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," a duet with Siedah Garrett. This song was the first single off the Bad album, and, for the life of me, I don't understand why he would choose such a bland song to kick off the album. It just sounds like your standard, by-the-numbers adult contemporary love song, nothing exciting or inspired about it. MJ usually comes up with such great melodies, but this is not one of them. Also, the lyrics are pretty sappy, even for this type of song. Garrett has a decent voice, but brings nothing special to this track. This is the only song off Bad that I always skip.

MJ visits the decadent world of rock stars and groupies with "Dirty Diana" (MJ-penned). The song touches on some of the same themes as "Billie Jean." As in "Billie Jean," this song involves a predatory woman attempting to ensnare MJ in her web of sex, lies and deceit. The song evokes an atmosphere of dread and despair. It is anchored by a slow, foreboding bass line with MJ singing in a plaintive fashion. Rock guitarist Steve Stevens contributes a blistering solo to the cut.

"Smooth Criminal" is another singular MJ-penned song with a really creepy subject matter: a home-invasion murder. The song has a rapid, driving bass line, and MJ sings his lyrics with power and intensity. He again shows his gift for melody with this song, especially on the chorus. The multi-overdubs of his harmonies on the chorus are goosebump-inducing. The song made it to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the U.S. Only Michael Jackson could record a song about a woman being murdered in her home and have it make the top 10 on the pop charts.

The album closes with "Leave Me Alone," a keyboard-driven groove written by MJ. This marked the first time that he addressed in song what he felt was the media's unfair treatment of him. He would later record songs that were much more angry and confrontational toward the media, particularly on his HIStory album. This track has an excellent layered chorus arrangement and is one of his most underrated songs. It also has a terrific video, which has some great stop-motion and cutout animation. Directed by filmmaker/animator Jim Blashfield, the video won a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video in 1990.

Bad is overall a stellar work, and people should view it on its own merits rather than compare it to Thriller. The only serious qualm I have with the album is the overuse of the synth bass on a lot of the songs. I know using the synth bass was popular at the time the album was released, but I wish they would have used a real electric bass guitar on more of the songs. The overuse of the synth bass makes the album sound a little dated. Other than that, Bad is a joy to listen to. Bad also marked the last time that MJ and Quincy Jones worked together on an album. I had always wished that they had worked on one more project together.

Full Bad album

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