A decade after Thriller and MTV transformed pop, Michael Jackson releases a collection that combines a classic greatest-hits anthology with a jarring and uneven new album. Throughout HIStory we're reminded of the Michael Jackson who helped groove music go mainstream with Off the Wall, fused high-tech New Wave and Caribbean rhythms with the aid of producer Quincy Jones on Thriller and Bad, and communed with trancelike '90s soul and New Jack Swing inventor Teddy Riley on 1991's underpraised Dangerous. A decade after Thriller, Jackson's still the same: the apolitical universalist who never shared the hip-hop generation's politics, the pop figurehead who bends the latest mass flavors to his creative will, the Spielbergian artist tycoon who's drawn to Old Hollywood glamour and New Hollywood balance sheets. He still wants to be the King of Pop and to be left alone.
And now, Jackson is more embattled than ever, as the furor over the epithet slinging of "They Don't Care About Us," a new track from HIStory, demonstrates. In the past, Jackson's albums defined their pop surroundings so a fan could hear past their oddness. HIStory doesn't offer that option; these days, whiz-bang Thriller-style kicks exist more on computer screens than on radios. Instead of ignoring his troubles or attacking them from interesting angles, Jackson obsesses on his woes, an eager participant in today's talk-show din of personal confession. He's angry, miserable, tortured, inflammatory, furious about what he calls, in "Stranger in Moscow," a "swift and sudden fall from grace."
Some of the new songs — the excellent current single "Scream" or the first-rate R&B ballad "You Are Not Alone" — manage to link the incidents of Jackson's infamous recent past to universal concepts like injustice or isolation. When he bases his music in the bluntness of hip-hop, Jackson sketches funky scenarios denouncing greed, blanket unreliability and false accusation. HIStory unfolds in Jackson's outraged response to everything he has encountered in the last year or so. It makes for an odd, charmless second chapter to a first that includes miraculous recordings like "Billie Jean," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Black or White" and "Beat It."
Without Quincy Jones around to give HIStory the rich unity of Thriller and Bad or even a producer-composer like Teddy Riley to bestow his variations of ongoing style, the new album really jerks you around. It goes from four collaborations with the peerless Minneapolis fusionists Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to tracks done by Jackson himself to a couple of loudly unmusical David Foster productions to one dynamite jam ("This Time Around") done with Atlanta R&B hotshot Dallas Austin that's ripe for remixes.
"Scream" and "Tabloid Junkie," two adventurous Jam and Lewis thumpers, work completely: Jackson's slippery voice is caught in mammoth funk-rock constructions. They're reminiscent of Janet Jackson's hits, in which Jam and Lewis allow space for lush vocal harmonies taken from the Triumph-era Jacksons; the choruses of "Tabloid Junkie" in particular sing out with quick-voiced warnings about the failings of media truth.
But the bulk of HIStory doesn't feel as contemporary as the "Scream" video, in which Michael and his sister Janet jump around like '90s fashion kids trapped in a spaceship stolen from a Barbarella film set. With its silly heraldic cover painting and theme-park title piece, HIStory feels like the work of someone with a bad case of Thriller nostalgia. Occasionally this backward focus works to Jackson's advantage: On "Stranger in Moscow" he remembers the synth-pop '80s while constructing wracked claims of danger and loneliness that rival any Seattle rocker's p??in.
More often, this strategy backfires. Jackson seems desperate for the days when he ruled, when doing a Beatles cover like this album's "Come Together" would have equaled a nod to preceding royalty. Now it reveals the downside of Jackson's HIStory defense, which is plain old superstar ego. The slow blues-operatic "Earth Song" for all its noble sentiments, sounds primarily like a showpiece — something with which to knock 'em dead in Monte Carlo. And uncut Hollywood fluff like "Childhood," "Little Susie" and the climactic version of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" has zero point of view on itself; its blend of rampaging ego and static orchestral pop is a Streisand-size mistake. What it's doing on an album with Dallas Austin and Jam and Lewis is anyone's guess. But then that's the story of this exhilarating, misconceived, often heartbreaking package. HIStory's ultimate goal is to position Michael Jackson's music as a planet, a genre, a law, a marketing budget unto itself. As time passes and singles break, maybe those superhuman plans will touch back down on earth.