In the three years since Michael Jackson's first solo album, Off the Wall, sold 7 million copies and spawned four hit singles, black music has veered away from the danceable but ultraslick style that Off the Wall epitomized. From Prince to Marvin Gave, from rap to Rick James, black artists have incorporated increasingly mature and adventurous themes — culture, sex, politics — into grittier, gutsier music. So when Jackson's first solo single since 1979 turned out to be a wimpoid MOR ballad with the refrain "the doggone girl is mine," sung with a tame Paul McCartney, it looked like the train had left the station without him.
But the superficiality of that damnably catchy hit belies the surprising substance of Thriller. Rather than reheating Off the Wall's agreeably mindless funk, Jackson has cooked up a zesty LP whose uptempo workouts don't obscure its harrowing, dark messages. Particularly on Jackson's own compositions, Thriller's tense, nearly obsessive sound complements lyrics that delineate a world that has put the twenty-four-year-old on the defensive. "They're out to get you, better leave while you can Don't wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man." It's been a challenging time for Jackson — his parents may separate, he's been involved in a paternity claim — and he's responded to those challenges head-on. He's dropped the boyish falsetto that sparked his hits from "I Want You Back" to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and chosen to address his tormentors in a full, adult voice with a feisty determination that is tinged by sadness. Jackson's new attitude gives Thriller a deeper, if less visceral, emotional urgency than any of his previous work, and marks another watershed in the creative development of this prodigiously talented performer.
Take "Billie Jean," a lean, insistent funk number whose message couldn't be more blunt: "She says I am the one/But the kid is not my son." The party spirit that suffused Off the Wall has landed him in trouble, and he tempers that exuberance with suspicion. "What do you mean I am the one," he quizzically asks his femme fatale, "who will dance on the floor?" It's a sad, almost mournful song, but a thumping resolve underlies his feelings: "Billie Jean is not my lover" is incessantly repeated as the song fades out.
Billie Jean is mentioned in passing in Thriller's most combative track, the hyperactive "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," wherein Jackson also takes on the press, gossips of all kinds and other grief-givers. Here the emotions are so raw that the song nearly goes out of control. "Somebody's always tryin' to start my baby crying," he laments, and that sense of quasi paranoia yields to near-bitterness in the chorus: "You're a vegetable, you're a vegetable/They'll eat off you, you're a vegetable." It's a tune that's almost as exciting as seeing Jackson motivate himself across a concert stage — and a lot more unpredictable. These lyrics won't keep Elvis Costello awake nights, but they do show that Jackson has progressed past the hey-let's-hustle sentiments that dominated Off the Wall.
The sheer vitality of the musical setting obviates any sense of self-pity. Quincy Jones' production — Jackson coproduced his own compositions — is sparer than usual, and refreshingly free of schmaltz. Then again, he's working with what might be pop music's most spectacular instrument: Michael Jackson's voice. Where lesser artists need a string section or a lusty blast from a synthesizer, Jackson need only sing to convey deep, heartfelt emotion. His raw ability and conviction make material like "Baby Be Mine" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" into first-class cuts and even salvage "The Girl Is Mine." Well, almost.
Maybe the best song here is "Beat It," a this-ain't-no-disco AOR track if ever I heard one. Jackson's voice soars all over the melody, Eddie Van Halen checks in with a blistering guitar solo, you could build a convention center on the backbeat, and the result is one nifty dance song. Programmers, take note.
Jackson's greatest failing has been a tendency to go for the glitz, and while he's curbed the urge on Thriller, he hasn't obliterated it entirely. The end of side two, especially "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," isn't up to the spunky character of the other tracks. And the title song, which at first sounds like a metaphoric examination of the same under-siege mentality that marks the LP's best moments, instead degenerates into silly camp, with a rap by Vincent Price. (Couldn't they get Count Floyd?)
Jackson has made no secret of his affection for traditional showbiz and the glamour that goes with it. His talents, not just singing but dancing and acting, could make him a perfect mainstream performer. Perish the thought. The fiery conviction of Thriller offers hope that Michael is still a long way away from succumbing to the lures of Vegas. Thriller may not be Michael Jackson's 1999, but it's a gorgeous, snappy step in the right direction.