Michael Jackson

Off The Wall

(Epic; 1979)

By David Abravanel | 29 June 2009

If you’ve been paying attention to the Internet’s collective screaming consciousness, there’s a battle going on right now. Michael Jackson is dead, and the question is whether his memory should be more preserved as the King of Pop or Wacko Jacko. Does the fact that he’s so recently deceased mean that we temporarily need to stop talking about his inappropriate activities with children? Should this just be a time to celebrate the music?

I don’t have the definitive answers to these questions, obviously. But CMG is first and foremost a music site, and, for me personally, it’s hard to care about any of that eccentric drama bullshit while the best pop record in history is playing. Because that’s what Off The Wall is, and I’ve practically known it was since I was six.

Allow me to get that personal stuff out of the way (and I challenge any music critic out there to not have some kind of personal story about Michael Jackson). Suffice it to say I’ve always been a music obsessive, and when I was a young child it was based on whatever my family was listening to; in the case of my parents, this meant a lot of classical music, some eccentric hippie rock and folk, and liberal helpings of MJ and Stevie Wonder. To this day, I hear that popcorn-synth in “Rock With You,” and then recall how that was my older sister’s ultimate jam since way before I came along. I hear “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and remember how my boyhood self thought he was saying, “Don’t stop with the postgirl,” as though the song were about chasing a mailwoman. Of course, at age eight, fifteen years after the release of Off The Wall, I still found meaning in that erroneous refrain.

Off The Wall was Michael Jackson’s coming out ball. He was already well known for being the cute kid fronting the Jackson 5, and had a string of modest solo hits, but this was something else entirely. Maintaining collaboration with Quincy Jones that had started during work on The Wiz, Jackson was ready to make the transition from boy wonder to serious adult artist. It’s hardly a coincidence that two of the record’s most high-profile songwriters, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, had both made similar transitions.

Thanks to Jones’ alchemical touch, Off The Wall manages to sound both raw and shiny, reflecting Jackson’s polished-yet-explosive live presence. The songs are ridden with bells and bouncy horn stabs, but it’s all presented in a beautiful and accessible package. On cuts like “Get On The Floor,” Jackson lets loose over a slap-bass disco riff, making an infectiously energetic dance track that nevertheless pulsates with a kind of tension, and though he’s purposefully holding something back for effect. Maybe it’s the tightly gated horns, or just Jackson’s trademark vocal tics, but side one of the record sounds like a passionate plea to party from a man gliding on thin, glittery ice.

Off The Wall further provided occasion for Jackson to present himself as a maturing lover, through such tender moments as “She’s Out Of My Life,” a ballad which closes with him breaking out in tears, or “I Can’t Help It,” Stevie Wonder’s stellar contribution, which aptly sums up the mad masochism associated with reckless romantic infatuation: “I can’t help it / if I wanted to / I wouldn’t help it / even if I could.” Retrospectively, it’s easy to question whether these romantic longings were genuine for Jackson, but if there’s a charade going on, then Jackson is playing it seriously method. The Paul McCartney-penned “Girlfriend” straddles the line between the puppy-love songs that Jackson was leaving behind, and more sensual territory, as cartoonishly happy pop synths back a tale of Jackson playfully poaching another man’s woman.

As for “Don’t Stop” and “Rock With You,” well, what hasn’t been said about these massive hits? It’s worth mentioning that Jackson gets sole writing credit for the former, another one of his steps to maturity and pop royalty. What’s more worth focusing on, though, is that Off The Wall is an undeniably phenomenal listen, from start to finish. It’s the demand from a fiery young artist to be taken seriously, and the music world listened. It’s a tribute both to Jackson’s genius and instability that the overwhelming success of Off The Wall only inspired him to try to completely change the history of pop music, which he would go on to do with Thriller. But, while Thriller (and it hurts to say this) is an imperfect statement when taken as a whole, Off The Wall is unified yet diverse; infectious disco-boogie spiced with ballads that never get too treacly. Each song features a hook that most pop singers would be lucky to have at the summit of their careers. Jackson never sounds effortless—he’s clearly working hard—but like a natural, someone inevitably drawn to stress out amazing music.