With song titles like “Unbreakable” and “Invincible,” Michael Jackson may as well have embraced his critics and called his newest album Monster. In a word, the actual title, Invincible, screams that he is anything but unbreakable. It’s clear Mike is beyond peace; on the stand-out “Threatened” (a new millenium “Thriller,” if you will) Jackson’s digitized narrator declares, “What you just witnessed could be the end of a particularly terrifying nightmare. It isn’t; it’s the beginning.” And it’s a shaky one at that.
We are, unfortunately, subjected to an obligatory smattering of media backlashing that began with 1987’s “Leave Me Alone” and continued throughout most of 1995’s HIStory. “Privacy” dishes out plenty of tasty self-righteousness (“Stop maliciously attacking my integrity” he quips) and while “Unbreakable” is undeniably catchy, neither song touches the indignant fury of the Jackson sibling duet “Scream.” “Heartbreaker” finds the superstar taking a cue from popster pals Justin Timberlake and ’NSync, mixing up Jackson’s distinct rhythms and polished harmonies with video game blips and bleeps. The minimalist sticatto beats of tracks like “Invincible” grow hard on the ears, however, and scattered guest rap interludes (including a recycled Biggie spot) just sound dated.
Ironically, it’s the time-tested retro-soul formula that Jackson revisits on tracks like the jazzy “Butterflies” and “Don’t Walk Away” that seems invincible. Rarely since Thriller has the performer exuded so much warmth; the subtle harmonies and simple arrangements of the breezy “Break of Dawn” and “Heaven Can Wait” not only recall the time period but wisely update it. To say that Invincible’s ballads are its saving grace would be an understatement. “Cry,” co-written by R. Kelly and Jackson, is typical of both parties: simple melody and soaring climax. The track is a more subdued “Man In the Mirror,” perfectly aligned with the current tone of the country.
Of course, Jackson must always enter mush-territory, this time with “The Lost Children,” a super-ballad complete with an entirely unnecessary children’s choir. In the end, Invincible breaks little ground, instead sticking to familiar sounds of both his recent past and near-ancient history. Jackson could have taken a more daring retro route but perhaps he doesn’t realize he has nothing to lose. The album’s first single, “You Rock My World,” is as safe as they come and, like the album, it might not do much to further an ever-peculiar career. If the nightmare is indeed over, what’s in store for Jackson’s waking life is completely unclear.