Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present, and Future Book I is, not surprisingly, history of the most selective sort. Its first of two discs, collecting 15 of his biggest hits, starts not with the Jackson 5 but with the glorious, gliding-on-air numbers from Off the Wall, the 1979 solo album that reintroduced the young-adult, ready-to-groove Jackson to the public. That moment, which culminated three years later in the world domination of Thriller (still the best-selling album of all time, at 46 million copies worldwide), was so all-consuming that Jackson has, almost pathetically, been trying to top it ever since.

As if to convince us that Jackson still matters, the 50-page booklet crammed between the two discs (the second of which contains all new songs) has more gush than an oil field. Liz Taylor and Steven Spielberg offer testimonials that read like character witnesses at a trial; pages and pages are devoted to listing Jackson’s sales figures and awards. The intent is obvious: to equate financial success with quality, celebrity friends with goodness. What kind of earthly demons would actually believe those child-abuse allegations, given that Jackson is so beloved and even visits preteen burn victims? (Yes, the booklet features a shot of such a scene, along with many photos of Jackson cavorting with kids.) ”Even children still love him,” the presentation seems to scream. ”What’s your problem?”

Putting aside for a moment the grotesque egomania on display, it’s truly a shame that Jackson so desperately needs to trumpet his worth, for there was a time when his impact on pop was nothing short of positive. His across-the-dance-floor-boards popularity was an affront to racial divisions, especially those of the Reagan era. (One of my most vivid memories from that time is walking down a Brooklyn street and hearing a different song from Thriller blasting from several different stores, both white- and black-owned.) At a time when nuclear worries ran almost as high as they did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, our escape to Jacko-ville, via music almost unearthly in its perfection, seemed like a valid option.

The hits portion of HIStory reintroduces us to those glory days — the ominous opening beat of ”Billie Jean,” the effortless sway of ”Rock With You,” the elegance of ”Man in the Mirror,” and the one-two punch of ”Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” followed by ”Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Given that Jackson’s albums have always been padded with fluffy material, the singles don’t at all sound orphaned when taken out of context. That said, it’s also music so associated with videos that hearing ”Beat It” or ”Thriller” now is akin to listening to a Broadway cast album — something seems missing.

Coming on the heels of earlier singles like ”Heal the World,” the new world depicted on HIStory‘s 15 fresh recordings is no longer the optimistic one of a dozen years ago. ”I’m a victim of police brutality…I can’t believe this is the land from which I came,” he decries in ”They Don’t Care About Us,” one of several oblique references to those charges. Yet ”they” aren’t out to get just him. In a scenario that would humble O.J.’s ”dream team,” Jackson presents his own trial by media as merely part of an evil conspiracy by an unspecified ”them” to ruin us all. In ”Earth Song,” ”they” are destroying the environment; in ”Money,” ”they kill for” the green stuff. Children pay the biggest price. In ”Little Susie,” which sounds like a Soviet waltz from the 21st century, he laments an innocent young girl who takes a fall down a flight of stairs and dies, ”the blood in her hair.” Susie is symbolic of all the latchkey children set adrift with no supervision on this cold, uncaring planet.

As music, the new songs wobble between rehash and moments of the old magic. Jackson may have recruited in-vogue young guns from Boyz II Men to R. Kelly to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but, to his credit, there’s no question who’s running the zoo. The crisp, staccato clip and compressed harmonies of ”They Don’t Care About Us,” or the layered, meticulously arranged textures of the fluid ”Stranger in Moscow,” could come from no one else but Jackson. Even his attempts at injecting a little new-jack strut into his sometimes routine rhythms — on ”Money,” which beats Kelly at his own game, and ”This Time Around” — are more assured than similar attempts on Dangerous.

But with few exceptions, Jackson doesn’t sound as if he’s learned anything new in a decade. He still tries, without much luck, to create credible hard rock (on ”D.S.,” about a covert hitman on his trail, and the flailing single ”Scream”). He’s still given to never-never-land whimperings, like the overorchestrated ”Childhood (Theme From Free Willy 2)” and a destined-for-Disney rendition of ”Smile.” He’s still padding songs with sound effects (this time: historic speeches!). A remake of the Beatles’ ”Come Together” is rote, and his collaboration with Kelly produces a syrupy sweet-nothings ballad, ”You Are Not Alone” (curiously, the only love song here from the recently married Wacko Jacko).

Whether Jackson is guilty of manhandling kids or not, what HIStory makes clear is that the past two years have taken their toll. The music rarely seems to transport him (and thereby us) to a higher plane. On ”Tabloid Junkie,” he comes as close to transcendence as anywhere on the album. The chorus — on which he snaps, ”Just because you read it in the magazine or see it on the TV screen don’t make it factual” — is his grabbiest, most driven refrain in years. The rest of the song, however, is mucked up with fake tabloid-TV snippets about his ”life,” and on the verses Jackson’s delivery is so terse (he’s not singing, he’s harrumphing) that his lyrics are all but obliterated. Handed a golden opportunity, he throws it all away — but then, it wouldn’t be the first time. Averaging out the A-grade hits and the overall C-level new material, HIStory winds up a B.

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