Greatest hits albums usually lack focus. Time after time, for some obvious reasons, andsome mysterious ones, the essence and real greatness of the group or individual artist eludesattempts at collections. The Jackson Five, one of Motown’s most commercially successful groups,suffers dramatically from this process. On this package the limitations of the group — mainly theslickness and vapidity of some their AM material, and the immaturity and shrillness of Michael’svoice — seem unduly in control of our overall response to the group.
“I Want You Back,” their first and best song, opens the album. When it came out twoyears ago, Motown was releasing a lot of mechanical socially conscious songs like “Love Child”and “Runaway Child.” “I Want You Back” was a cause for celebration, as elaborately produced asthe Temptations’ stuff but as exciting and youthful as early Motown. Everything about it wasgreat, from its blunt, classic rock and roll title to the final fadeout on Michael screaming “Iwant you back.” It was, and still is, a great, joyous record.
Listening to the album’s first side, the initial “I Want You Back”-induced euphoriapeters out. The side’s last cut is “Maybe Tomorrow,” a ballad which takes a long time to getstarted and never goes very far. By this time Michael’s voice begins to grate. You start to feeldisappointed. By the middle of the second side, around a horrible song called “Going Back ToIndiana,” despair sets in.
The critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that decline is never pure and never simple. The twofollowups to “I Want You Back” are both very competently made, entertaining, lyrically idioticsongs — fine for a car radio, or fun to move around to. The break in “ABC” coyly plays on the Steve Stills-Buffalo Springfield song “Sit Down, I Think I Love You.” Michael says, “Sit down,girl, I think I love you. No, stand up, girl and let me see what you can do.” (He winds up comingoff as a cynical nine-year-old chauvinist.)
But cuteness and cleverness do wear awfully thin. The genius of Holland-Dozier-Hollandwas that most of the songs they ground out for their groups had real substance. The JacksonFive’s writing-producing team, who call themselves “The Corporation,” are much more erratic. Thelast two uptempo singles they ground out, “Mama’s Pearl” and “Sugar Daddy,” sound very tired,lacking not only inspiration, but even the competence of “ABC.”
Somewhere midstream the group began doing ballads. Motown had previously recorded veryfew ballads, and the few they released didn’t sell very well. But Michael Jackson did fool around with a few on the first two albums. On the first he did a so-so job with on old Smokey Robinson number, “Who’s Loving You.” On the second he did a fine job with the Delfonics’ “LaLa Means I Love You.” The last time he screams out that “Listen to me” is hair-raising — the pinnacle of hisvocal career. Unfortunately “Who’s Loving You” is on this album, and “La La …” isn’t. So itgoes.
Anyway, their first ballad release, “I’ll Be There,” sold around three million copies.It’s a very pretty song — the harmonies are lovely and it gives Michael a chance to show off theincredible power of his voice and to hold on to those notes for a long, long time. But it’s toopretty, too mannered, too cute. Michael’s immaturity shows up on the ballads and they gettiresome. “I’ll Be There” and its successor “Never Can Say Goodbye” are admirable pieces ofcraftsmanship, but not gutsy or real enough.
Car radios and 45s seem to be the best medium for this group. On a car radio “ABC” orMichael’s recent solo effort, “Gotta Be There” are exciting and more than adequate. TheABC album, though by no means a great record, is a lot more relaxed and enjoyable than Greatest Hits. Four of these 11 hits are just plain bad songs. And listening to six straight cuts of Michael gets to be unpleasant. This record does make me feel old.