Invincible

Near the end of michael Jackson's first album of new material since 1995 is an exceptional song titled "Whatever Happens." Jackson, singing in the third person with a jagged intensity, narrates the story of a couple trapped in an unnamed threatening situation: "Whatever happens," they tell each other, "don't let go of my hand." The music is Latin-based, a deep brew of Jeremy Lubbock's strings and Carlos Santana's guitar. Jackson and producer Teddy Riley make something really handsome and smart: They allow you to concentrate on the track's momentous rhythms, Santana's passionate interjections and Lubbock's wonderfully arranged symphonic sweeps.

Unfortunately, "Whatever Happens" is not the rule on Invincible. There's little story-telling or transforming music on frantic songs such as "Threatened," in which Jackson assigns supernatural powers to himself, and "Privacy," where he's a besieged celebrity battling media invasions and inaccuracies, and "The Lost Children," a theater piece in which Jackson insists on singing about imperiled kids. Instead, we're placed squarely in Michael Jacksonland, a bizarre place where every sparkling street is computer-generated, every edifice is larger than life and every song is full of grandiose desperation. It's an excruciatingly self-referential place, worsened further by its namesake's unmatched controversies and weirdnesses, plus the inevitable march of pop time.

"With all that I've been through," he swears at the beginning of "Unbreakable," "I'm still around." The track's title may be unconvincing, but producer Rodney Jerkins does give six of the album's sixteen tracks a fleet, durable R&B minimalism. On "You Rock My World," Jackson and Jerkins recall the singer's work with Quincy Jones by way of finely sculpted and exquisitely voiced rhythm tracks and vibrating vocal harmonies. But Jackson is merely treading water on generic tracks such as "Heartbreaker" and "2000 Watts" (co-produced by Riley).

Invincible lavishes time on ballads. They range from Los Angeles smooth ("You Are My Life," done with a terribly off Babyface) to the odd ("Butterflies"). Best of the bunch are "Don't Walk Away," uncut Riley-produced heartbreak soul, and "Cry," where co-producer R. Kelly more or less succeeds with the kind of life-affirming number Jackson will never (and should never) quite desert. But he does need to leave Michael Jacksonland, that place where every sign points back to the spectacle of himself. Whether he will remains unclear.