This might be referred to as a “mature” album, and that’s its major disappointment. Rather than an intensification of the Jackson 5’s earlier work, Maybe Tomorrow is a cooling off — carefully considered and well-timed, but just a little too easy. It’s the difference between the slow exhalation of breath that opens “Never Can Say Goodbye” and the urgent screams in “I Want You Back.” In its own way, Michael breathing in your ear is exciting as instant intimacy but it’s mere titillation compared to the magnificent excess of adolescent shrillness and raw energy in the earlier singles.
Yet “Never Can Say Goodbye” was a great 45 and stands as the strongest, most satisfying cut on the album. The hushed, harmonizing chorus work, bright flute and triangle/bell accents, steady drumming — everything heightens the young-boy tension in Michael’s lead, giving him a subtle background to play against and making his “ooo”-squeals at the end all the more delicious. Nothing else quite comes up to this tightly controlled blend of energies, but if you can accept anything less than perfection, these cuts, too, are outstanding:
“Maybe Tomorrow,” the longest (4:46) and most ambitious (more flute, with harps, french horn flourishes, tambourines and of course floods of strings) but remarkably successful in the aching love song mode;
“The Wall,” which comes closest to the feeling of the masterpiece singles, punched along by brilliant drumming, an insistent soul clap and a chorus of “tear the wall down”;
“Petals,” one of the Jackson 5’s trademark jumpy tunes, with a she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not theme (“When my honey says she loves me so,” Michael confides, “Believe me y’all it’s far from status quo”), layered harmonies and a lovably light-weight lead. These are all potential single hits — genuine AM radio beauties.
With all the above songs on side one, the second side has a kind of wastebasket feeling. It’s nice, sure it’s nice, but nothing rises much above that level. Of these, only “It’s Great To Be Here” comes across with drive and spunk but even this is pretty silly with its asides about eskimos and senoritas (I have to admit though that trashy touches like this have a certain attraction — a whole aesthetic of their own — and without them the J5, and pop music in general, could be awfully boring). Where nearly half the cuts on the three previous Jackson 5 albums were reworkings — often very effective and stylish ones — of material from other performers, just two borrowed songs are included here. Sadly, both “16 Candles” and “Honey Chile” are given less than inspired treatment and were better left alone.
The production is by the Corporation, a fittingly anonymous name for the Motown team which has worked with the Jackson 5 as producer-composer from the beginning. For this album, five songs are separately credited to producer Hal Davis who shared credit with the corporation on the second on third J5 LPs, but the style throughout is uniformly Motown Moderne: flashy and not always in the best of taste but so fucking fine that even the lowest cut has its moments of distinction. The 5’s lyrics are never anything very special but “Never Can Say Goodbye” deserves a note as probably the only pop song to use the world “anguish.” An 11-year-old boy singing about anguish and doubt! One of the achievements of this album is that, with little suspension of disbelief, we can accept Michael as a tormented lover — give him another year and he’ll give us a convincing version of “Dark End of the Street.”
Maybe Tomorrow shows the Jackson 5 in a minor light, hardly appropriate for a Major Phenomenon but not unflattering.