(#442: 30 November 1991, 1 week)
Track listing: Jam/Why You Wanna Trip On Me/In The Closet/She Drives Me Wild/Remember The Time/Can’t Let Her Get Away/Heal The World/Black Or White/Who Is It/Give In To Me/Will You Be There/Keep The Faith/Gone Too Soon/Dangerous
“Songs in the Key of Life is only a conglomerate of thoughts in my subconscious that my Maker decided to give me the strength, the love + love – hate = love energy making it possible for me to bring to my conscious an idea. An idea to me is a formed thought in the subconscious, the unknown and sometimes sought for impossibles, but when believed strong enough, can become a reality. So let it be that I shall live the idea of the song and use its words as my sight into the unknown, but believe positive tomorrow and I shall so when in evil darkness smile up at the sun and it shall to me as if I were a pyramid give me the key in which I am to sing, and if it is a key that you too feel, may you join and sing with me.”
(Stevie Wonder, 1976)
“Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I am dancing, I have felt touched by something sacred.In those moments, I felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing then it is the eternal dance or creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy. I keep on dancing...and dancing...and dancing. Until there is only...the dance.”
(Michael Jackson, 1991)
“And when [John Coltrane] came out with A Love Supreme, [his critics thought] how could this man have anger? Why is power and the expression of the power of God, why was it so misrepresented as anger? When A Love Supreme came out, there was a change. A change in the mentality. Because over the years, there was so much commentary: ‘This angry horn player… he’s changing all the standards and all the norms, he’s ignoring them.’
people really began to understand that this man, and all that power and thunder
that they heard, was not in anger. We need thunder and lightning sometimes to
let us know it’s going to rain. Well, we are in California, we had a five-year
drought at one time, so I know that people would be rejoicing to hear the sound
of the thunder, and to know that the rains will come.”
(Alice Coltrane, a.k.a. Swamini Turiyasangitananda, interviewed by Clea McDougall for the Canadian yoga magazine Ascent, 2007)
Nobody really got Songs In The Key Of Life when it came out either, or the works of Alice Coltrane for that matter, and for identical reasons.
I remember returning to work after lunch one Thursday with a new copy of Dangerous which I had just bought from my then-local branch of Our Price. An office colleague remarked that they didn’t think musically Michael Jackson was my sort of thing. The hip choice at the time was U2’s Achtung Baby, which had come out on the Monday of that same week and which, despite a three-day sales advantage, utterly lost out to Dangerous the following week.
It was foolish of U2 to think that they could outsell Jackson, but I do not think that Dangerous’ commercial triumph was solely due to that. Both were long-awaited albums from major artists which their fans had been awaiting for several years.
Having listened to both albums again yesterday evening, however, it became sorely apparent that Dangerous was, and for that matter is, by far the superior record. There is a residual murkiness in the mix (if not the production) of Achtung which erects a barrier between artist and listener. Moreover, although bearing some individually very strong songs, it is striking how relatively conservative a rock album Achtung is, despite all of the talk at the time of radicalism. Daniel Lanois was the record’s primary producer – Eno basically just tagged on for the ride – and his adroit use of space works well when the record breaks out of its trendy box (a lot of it, I’m afraid, reminds me of an under-par Jesus Jones). Its most affecting moments are when the band elect to play it straight – “One,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and the spectacular and very Orbison-esque “So Cruel” – or on isolated moments (the Edge’s Bill Frisell figurines halfway through “Even Better Than The Real Thing”). Intermittently one obtains glimpses of the bigness for which the band are aiming (“Until The End Of The World”). Elsewhere, however, Bono in particular just tries too damn hard to be hip.
Whereas Dangerous is, cumulatively, an astonishing piece of work; clear, clipped, expansive, explosive and, unlike Achtung, a record of its time which remains highly listenable outside it. Almost three decades on, it has not received anything approaching its critical due, in large part because, well, it was Michael Jackson, with everything that (or he) entailed. Official histories stop dead at Off The Wall and Thriller, and all that followed has been smugly sneezed off, or contemptuously dismissed, given what happened to him and the things which he is supposed to have done (none of which has been conclusively proven; and even if they were, is the man’s legacy too big for the proposed fall of pop to bear?).
I suspect that most people listened to the record at the time with, at best, half an ear, because Dangerous was probably Jackson’s most consistently great album since Off The Wall. Its opening six songs, in particular, co-written with and produced by Teddy Riley, exude an unstoppable, nearly superhuman dynamism which bears valid comparison to Off The Wall’s first side, even if the exuberance has been superseded by anger and neurotic self-doubt.
From its opening breaking-glass salvo, “Jam” in its first nanosecond achieves everything the U2 of 1991 were trying to capture. Its new jack swing beats have not dated a bit, Heavy D’s guest rap is thoroughly relevant, and there is a terrifying, but ultimately liberating, certainty to Jackson’s growls – if anything, he sounds like another (George) Michael vocally. Its five successors are undeniable and unavoidable. Both “Why You Wanna Trip On Me” and “In The Closet” play with bitonality and rhythmic displacement in ways which beyond question must have influenced the younger Timbaland and Neptunes; “In The Closet” in particular foresees what Justin Timberlake would do a dozen years later, not least with its wildly abstract mid-song break (Terre Thaemiltz in dub conference with Ground Zero, for Wire readers). “She Drives Me Wild” and the jagged snarling of “Can’t Let Her Get Away” – Michael Jackson eats himself? – continue the very high level of punctumisation, so damnably thrilling that you don’t initially notice what he’s singing about; perhaps one doesn’t really want to examine what he’s singing about, but he sounds furious and troubled. Bobby Brown just isn’t in it, and neither is Diamonds And Pearls with its curate’s egg of good songs buried in a morass of interminable band jams.
The sequence comes to a head in the sublime “Remember The Time,” melodically almost a reminder of the simpler things Jackson got up to on side two of Wall; it is as though Riley has been given licence to rejig the components of new jack swing in ways which his own band Guy could not really encompass (and indeed this turns out to have actually been the case). It is generally light and decorous, except for the song’s singer, who incrementally becomes more and more irate as the song progresses (or ascends); note his rottweiler growl of the phrase “in the back of my mind.” His lead vocal collapses in the song’s endgame much as Lydon’s did in “Holidays In The Sun”; he secedes from rhythm and bar lines, is desperately trying to piece together semi-random glimpses of assumed memory – in the park, on the beach, in Spain – in ways which strongly suggests a Bladerunner replicant attempting to convince himself that any of this ever happened. It might only have happened in the replicant’s implanted mind.
After Jackson has gnarled down the atoms of “Can’t Let Her Get Away” to those of pure rhythm – its closing moments are not that far away from Stockhausen’s Stimmung – one wonders how much more magnificence this album can tolerate. For the first time since 1979 he sounds alive and involved.
Then “Michael Jackson” takes over, and takes the album in a different, though related, direction.
Yes, “Heal The World,” with its child-voiced intro and outro, if done by anybody else would be gloopy Perry Como Christmas Special schmaltz – and yes, it does sound like a “We Are The World” rewrite, but since Jackson co-wrote the latter, we can let him off. Can’t we? Won’t we? The important thing, though, apart from offering a much-needed spot of relief from the hyperactivity of the Teddy Riley songs, is that, yes, this is family entertainment on BBC1 slop, if you prefer to look at it that way, or would be if anybody else had tried it – but Michael Jackson means it. He thinks he has come up with the “Hey Jude” of his age, he believes that he has written one of the most beautiful and heartfelt musical pleas to humanity. And because of his unshakable sincerity, we are encouraged to go along with it. We are, perhaps in keeping with our worst instincts, moved. “There are people dying/If you care enough for the living…” – you didn’t scoff when you heard Marvin sing very similar words twenty years previously, did you? “Heal The World” touches something very fundamental in the human spirit, as did its author and performer.
Why you wanna trip Michael up on that?
“Black Or White”; that was a very problematic lead single (not as problematic as “The Girl Is Mine” had been, admittedly). On the album it begins with a father hammering on his son’s bedroom door, demanding that the loud (and rather straightforward) rock music – that’s Slash on guitar – be turned down, or off. This sequence sounds a bit underfed, and indeed works much better in the song’s video (with George Wendt and Macaulay Culkin – neither of whom appears on the album, as such – both in fine, infuriated form).
The song then springs into instantly catchy activity. Its opening line, “I took my baby to a Saturday bang,” immediately places the song in direct lineage to its precedents in black popular music, summoning up the spirits of Louis Jordan (“Saturday Night Fish Fry”) and Duke Ellington (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” with its opening line of “Missed the Saturday dance”). Again, this rather angry plea for racial tolerance steadily becomes more and more jagged, making the song much more reminiscent, musically, of Prince’s frightening “Bob George,” than the usual reference point of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.”
Yes, the “rapper” in the song’s centre, arguing that he’s not gonna spend his life being a colour, is a white guy, Bill Bottrell no less. That is the point, since Jackson immediately responds to Bottrell’s homilies with a snarling “Don’t tell me you agree with me when I saw you kicking dirt in my eye!” The video makes its case even more directly, as Jackson, morphing from a Black Panther, trashes a car daubed in racist graffiti. The totality of “Black Or White” seems uncommonly prescient, given what happened in Los Angeles barely five months later.
“Who Is It” might be Jackson’s most singularly chilling performance on the album. Its grain goes beyond paranoia and obsession. Who has had the effrontery to suggest that they are better than he? Is he singing to himself, or to his fans? He is petrified throughout most of the song, his trademark “hee-hee”s becoming frail, flimsy and fallible. He is pleading for life, not simply for help (the odd, hushed middle section might represent an unheard session in the confession booth at church), but this goes far above the “Whodunnit? Who stole my baby” soul tropes of old. Its lyric in places (“I am the damned/I am the dead/I am the agony inside/The dying head/This is injusticeWoe unto thee/I pray this punishment/Would have mercy on me”) is enough to make one mistake this for a Nick Cave song. He is on the point of complete collapse.
“Give In To Me” begins with a glide guitar nod to the Cocteau Twins (or possibly even My Bloody Valentine, although there is no way Jackson could have heard Loveless at the time – Heaven Or Las Vegas, a popular album in the States, seems far more likely) before kneeing rock music in the groin, twisting its cheap sex tropes into a shrill demand which, aided (once again) by Slash’s guitar (which goes far beyond what Eddie van Halen did on “Beat It”), verges on the demonic. Perhaps that was the farthest in that direction which Jackson dared travel. I do not wish to think about its other implications in light of what we think we now know.
He climactically turns back towards God; “Will You Be There?” is gospel – Andrae Crouch, present on Like A Prayer two-and-a-half years previously, is back on board – complete with an orchestral and choral prelude sampled from Beethoven’s ninth symphony, as performed by the Cleveland Orchestra (“Do you bow down, millions?/Do you sense the Creator, world?/Seek Him beyond the starry canopy!/Beyond the stars must He dwell”). There were some legal hiccups about that but perhaps Jackson recalled what Culturcide had done with “We Are The World” five years previously.
The song is clearly a prayer to God – the Ink Spots’ 1939 recording “Bless You For Being An Angel” may be a relevant influence, musically and thematically – but in Jackson’s hands is an exceptionally tormented entreaty. He gradually falls apart as the song proceeds to its calm, logical and primordially very moving close, pleading at its, and possibly his, end for understanding and deliverance. It is as if his soul can sink no lower.
Some dismiss the remaining three songs on Dangerous as glorified “bonus tracks,” but they are all crucial to the album’s flow as a whole. In particular, “Keep The Faith,” done with Glenn Ballard and Siedah Garrett, is a very fine song and illustrates a kind of spiritual deliverance for Jackson; he has raised himself from the floor, off his knees, and is fighting back towards some kind of triumph. After that, “Gone Too Soon,” a song from 1983 sung in 1991 as a tribute to the young Aids victim Ryan White, is sung as innocently as though it were still 1972; Jackson’s reading is direct, controlled and dignified. Finally, the title song sees Riley back, with Buttrell’s assistance, to signify that, following the cycle of life, death and rebirth – which is what this album essentially chronicles; the old New Orleans thing – here is the sound of late 1991 now, a song of the current times, transitory graffiti offering the slogans and mood of the moment. It is ebullient, this “Dangerous,” and I note its confession of “Lust is blind” as set against the “Love Is Blindness” which concludes Achtung Baby. Regardless of what you might think, or have been told to think, about Michael Jackson, Dangerous is as striking a work of rerouted Afrofuturism as Ptah, the El Daoud and Mothership Connection were in their respective times. I suspect that its indifferent reputation is not reflected in the subsequent generation of black artists who were, and continue to be, inspired by it, and again ponder the impossibly high standards which black musicians are expected to maintain. The world still awaits its healing.
“Cold as a rock without a hue
Held together with a bit of glue
Something tells me this isn't true
You are my sweetheart soft and blue”
(From the poem “Planet Earth” by Michael Jackson)
“Come with me, get this air
Our heaven could be right here (my wings are greater)
Come with me, get this air
Our heaven could be right here (my wings are greater than walls)”
(From the song “Sun Ra” by Jamila Woods, as included on her 2019 album LEGACY! LEGACY!)