Even the most jaded soul's at least this bit interested in MJ's latest--a disc three-plus years in the making, at the cost of some $30-$40 mil. Nostalgists wonder only what happened to the kid they once adored; they shake their head, cluck their tongues and lament how so vital a performer can become an afterthought barely into his 40s. The kids wonder only who is the transparent idol held aloft by their disposable heroes; if he's good enough for Justin and Britney, there must be something to him, though he's old enough to be their father (or boyfriend). If nothing else, there's the freak-show factor: How does such a recluse reconcile his need to be loved with his desire to shut himself off from the world? Arrogance and bashfulness don't make particularly attractive bedfellows, especially when Jackson, with the assistance of performers living (Brandy) and dead (Notorious B.I.G.) and in between (Carlos Santana, just kidding), is determined to reclaim his place atop the teeny-pops. "You can't touch me, 'cause I'm untouchable," he chirps in that familiar voice, which is reduced to faded echo. "You'll never break me, 'cause I'm unbreakable." It's eerily disingenuous: Never has a hero, beloved until discarded, been so utterly fragile.
The disc isn't so awful as some critics would have you believe, nor is it the Second Coming for which Sony hopes; it's somewhere in between, R&B-pop as generic as the bar code on the back. It sounds as you would imagine, whether in dream or nightmare: like a pioneer struggling to keep pace not only with latest kings and queens of pop, but with his spectral glories that fade further with each attempt at remaining relevant. Its love-me ballads play like tepid Off the Wall redos; its look-at-me rave-ups, like Thriller and Bad rejects. The whole thing's so burnished it all but keeps the listener at bay; never has so "personal" an album played out so bereft of emotion or honesty. (If only he'd make a record about how fucking weird he is: Who wouldn't rush out to buy a disc about pet chimpanzees, Neverland sanctuaries and slumber parties with Macauley Culkin?) "So why ain't you feelin' me?" he sings to a would-be lover who shuns his advances (and, like, gross), but he might as well direct the question to his audience. The answer is simple: because what Jackson offers is hollow and sterile now, multimillion-dollar studio product so polished it offers only the reflection of the invisible man fading further into irrelevancy.
Robert Christgau once wrote in The Village Voice that what made Thriller such a "miracle" wasn't its consistent offering of pop pleasures, but the "unknowable allure of the pure star" who made it happen. Invincible, then, is what happens when the pure star dims, when a supernova turns into a black hole into which millions are dumped to pay the usual suspects, among them Rodney Jerkins, Babyface, Teddy Riley and the corpse of Biggie Smalls. Out to save the world (cf. "The Lost Children," and he might try looking for them in his bed) and reclaim his "Privacy" (which is all the hermit has left, even one who's peeled away his own skin till his insides are damned near on the outside), Jackson's so lost and dissolute there's no room left for playfulness and passion. He might as well be singing "Cry" and "You Are My Life" to himself; they're love songs performed in a mirror.
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Had the entirety of Invincible played out like its final cut, "Threatened," perhaps it might be more significant than mere novelty. Rod Serling, sampled from myriad Twilight Zone intros, plays moribund rapper to Jackson's vaporous apparition: "I forgot to introduce you to the monster," Serling beckons from the beyond. Jackson, like a wraith, crawls from the grave (or maybe just the cutout bins) to terrorize: "the living dead...your worst nightmare...the one watching you...I'm everywhere." Perhaps Jackson's toying with both image and audience: He's the freak, we're the freaked-out. There's no evidence that it's so knowing; likely, it's just low-rent terror, cheap thrills from a former Thriller.