The Three Kinds Of Posthumous Albums (And Where Michael Jackson Fits In)

May 17, 2014
Originally published on May 17, 2014 9:32 pm

This weekend on All Things Considered, NPR Music's critic Ann Powers spoke with guest host Tess Vigeland about Xscape: the posthumous Michael Jackson album released Tuesday, on which contemporary producers flesh out unfinished demos from throughout Jackson's career. (Read our review for details.)

In an exchange that didn't make the radio broadcast, Powers says the lineup of material on Xscape makes it an outlier in the world of posthumous albums, which usually fall into one of three categories:

  1. Warm to the Touch. "Usually the best posthumous releases are ones that come out shortly after the death of the artist, that were in the works before the artist died," Powers says. "A great example is The Notorious B.I.G.'s album Life After Death; it's a hip-hop classic. Or Grievous Angel by the country-rock great Gram Parsons, or Dreaming of You by Selena. These are albums that the artists would have made the way they were made — in fact, did, basically. And then their death tragically interrupted the flow of their career."
  2. The Infinite Vault. "On the other side we have the seemingly bottomless catalogs of Jimi Hendrix or Tupac Shakur — artists who, maybe, we are really starting to get to the stuff in the back of the closet. And even though it's historically valuable, it's not going to give us what the greatest, or even the middling, recordings [by those artists] are going to give us."
  3. Potpourri. "And then there are examples like An American Prayer, which is a record that has Jim Morrison reciting poetry over music by the remaining members of The Doors. I think that just never really needed to exist."

Xscape, Powers says, matches none of these profiles exactly. As part of Jackson's continuing story, however, it's a natural fit: A first batch of unreleased recordings hit shelves way back in 2010, just a year and change after his death, and various demos and raw vocal tracks have been surfacing for years. Powers says that while nothing on Xscape is history-making, it does enrich our sense of Jackson's life — including the parts that were hard to watch.

"In several cases, these songs are kind of disturbing: There's some paranoia expressed, there are some typical 'What about the children?' lyrics that are kind of upsetting. But I think we need that," Powers says. "We need to know every side of what Michael Jackson was, including the darker elements of his vision, the more problematic elements of his vision, as well as the beauty and genius that he was.

"Over the long term, an artist's legacy changes time and time again, and everything we hear from someone like Michael Jackson is going to help us understand him better. Sometimes we might not love what we hear, or maybe we think it's not framed the way we'd like. But I welcome all the information."

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland.


MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) ...I got the fireplace, but I won't hide away. Escape...

VIGELAND: This is a track from the new Michael Jackson album, "Escape." Yes, new, released this week, nearly five years after his death. The album is comprised of music Jackson didn't finish. A team of hotshot producers was recruited to do the honors on behalf of one of the most famous pop stars of all time. We asked Ann Powers of NPR Music to give "Escape" a listen and she joins us now. Welcome.


VIGELAND: What'd you think?

POWERS: Well, this is not a Michael Jackson record in the way that "Thriller" was or even "Bad." It's not history-making. But the songs on it are from throughout his career and they have been reconstructed in such a way that they meld very nicely with his body of work. The themes of the songs, the sounds, and of course, Michael's voice, which is still exquisite, are all appropriate I'd say, I guess.

VIGELAND: Yeah, you mentioned that this was from through his career and you really do get a sense of his varying styles, you know, from really early on. I don't know. I kind of felt like the title track felt like it was from earlier in his career. Then you have songs like "A Place With No Name that felt a little more recent.

POWERS: Right. Well, "A Place With No Name" is of course based on the song by America, "A Horse With No Name." And what's fun and interesting about that song is you can imagine Michael, who was 14 when the America song came out, growing up with it, and then wanting to make it his own, as they say. And he does so brilliantly. I think that's one of the high points on the album.


JACKSON: (Singing) And in the fog, a woman appeared. She said don't you worry my friend, I'll take care. Take my hand. Take it there. Oh, take me to a place without no name.

POWERS: The producers, I think, were very sensitive, Timberland, Rodney Jerkins, were very sensitive to the history of Michael Jackson. And that's really what this is in some ways, is it's not a historical document but it is enrichment of our sense of his history.

VIGELAND: And what do we know about these discoveries? Were these just lying around in a studio somewhere?

POWERS: Michael Jackson made many, many demos. He was always working. I think that's part of his tragedy, really. He worked himself to the end of his life. After he died, the Jackson estate made a deal with Sony to recreate some of those demos as fresh music, and that's what we're hearing. Now, this was not the first. There was another album like this in 2010 and I have a feeling it won't be the last.

But this is the most cohesive, I would say.

VIGELAND: One of the most fascinating aspects of this release is that you can hear both what he did originally and then contrast that with what the producers did with the original material. You can get this on the deluxe version and also on Spotify. And, you know, the originals almost seem like pencil sketches rather than full portraits. Let's listen to a clip of "Love Never Felt So Good." This is the produced version.


JACKSON: (Singing) Baby, love never felt so good and I'd die if it ever could. I like you...

VIGELAND: And now let's listen to Michael Jackson's original version. This was the one he left behind.


JACKSON: (Singing) Oh, baby. Love never felt so fine, and it died if it's ever mine.

VIGELAND: Ann, I'm curious what, if anything, these originals tell you about the creative mind of MJ?

POWERS: Well, I think they tell us a lot. And in fact, Tess, we've had other raw tracks from Michael Jackson surfacing in recent years. You can hear pure vocal tracks of some of his classic songs on YouTube. You can find them there. And everyone's always so astounded at his incredible musicality and inventiveness, even a cappella.

So I think what the demos give us is both that sense of astonishment at his incredible talent, and also, you know, they are evidence. They are what solidifies the integrity of this project. Offering these originals assures us that what then we hear in the produced versions in this case by Timberland are true to Michael's vision. And I think pretty much throughout the tracks are true to his vision.

VIGELAND: So these were songs that Michael Jackson for whatever reason chose not to share with us. What's your philosophy about this kind of posthumous release? Should they have avoided digging into what might have been his rejection pile?

POWERS: Well, sometimes I try to think in terms of 100 years from now, Tess. A hundred years from now, anyone who's curious or eager to find out about Michael Jackson the way that, say, I might want to find out about a blues great like Bessie Smith, really should have as much information as they can. And the fact that Jackson decided not to release these on his albums during his life doesn't mean he didn't create them, and they can't tell us something about his vision.

It's not just about making money. It certainly is about selling records. But also is about giving us as much of one of the greatest musicians to ever live as we can have.

VIGELAND: And certainly when you look back, you know, through music history there are plenty of examples where some of the stuff that's released after an artist's death is the most well-known of their careers. I mean, you know, "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," Otis Redding; "Me and Bobby McGee," Janis Joplin. Is there anything on this new Michael Jackson album that you think could have that kind of staying power?

POWERS: I've thought a lot about that, Tess. As enjoyable as these songs are, you know, there's never going to be another "Thriller." Michael's presence on the Earth was what made him a star, you know, not just what he did in the studio. And that's gone and we all have to deal with that. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy this gift that has been now given to us, or this product, which I consider a gift.

VIGELAND: That's Ann Powers from NPR Music. Ann, thanks so much.

POWERS: Thank you so much, Tess.


JACKSON: (Singing)'re a liar without me. But you've got a family, family, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.