Michael Jackson
HI Past, Present and Future, Book 1
Epic Records

A bluish gray statue of Michael Jackson stands defiantly on the cover of the Boy Wonder's latest album, the awkwardly titled HI Past, Present and Future, Book I. It's a cartoonish figure: a clench-fisted Jackson, dressed for battle with what looks like a Bat Belt wrapped around his waist, appears ready to take on all comers.

And that's what he does with HIStory -- at least with the 15 new tunes that comprise the second disc of this twin CD package (the rest are pristinely remastered hits from Jackson's solo career). A lot of things have happened to Jackson (he writes euphemistically) since his last album, Dangerous, and those dark times have dragged the singer kicking and screaming into the real world. He's no longer indulging his monster-movie mojo or conjuring up fantastical images of himself. ("I'm bad"? Get serious.)

The new songs on HIStory are suffused with anger and pain. It's the most urgent and real that Michael Jackson has ever sounded. A trained psychologist could probably have a field day with the lyrics -- denial? defensiveness? repressed anger? -- but the bottom line is this: Jackson is truly expressing himself here.

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Whether Jackson is the King of Pop is debatable, but he certainly is -- and always has been -- the King of Production. HIStory is a classic example of it; Jackson, along with co-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, concocts meticulous soundscapes that perfectly suit the mood of each song. Jackson occasionally overindulges his production jones -- the bloated orchestral "Little Susie" and the multimedia title track are studio puffs that attempt to mask weak ideas -- but for the most part he's right on the mark.

"Scream" (a duet with sister Janet Jackson) and "They Don't Care About Us," the first two tracks on disc two, are like caged animals. Jackson's anger peeks through his wounds and sadness with an aggression that borders on a threat. Even when Jackson moves his lyrical perspective to the world around him the results appear to take on a personal nature. "Earth Song" is ostensibly a tune about ecological rape, but in a more microscopic sense, it feels like a song about Jackson's own loss of innocence.

And I dare you to find a more poignant piece of song craft than "Stranger in Moscow." The gorgeous intertwining melody lines slowly build momentum as do the lyrics. Jackson repeatedly asks the same question: "How does it feel ... when you're alone and you're cold inside?" He finally answers that question in sad, sweeping terms: "Like a stranger in Moscow."

At least two themes emerge from Jackson's new work -- one of abuse and the other of isolation. Jackson really feels attacked; he feels like he has no one (or place) to run to. Those are probably old feelings. Jackson's career has been one of careful image-making; the child molestation charges shattered his manufactured illusion. He's been left exposed and reeling. Justified or not, Michael Jackson feels like he's the victim, and he's really pissed. His strong feelings don't always translate into great music, but the music it does translate into is always fascinating.

HIStory's first disc contains 15 remastered Jackson hits. Simply put, they've never sounded better. The sound is crisp, the details sharp. You can argue about the merits of Jackson's body of work -- "The Girl is Mine" in particular is a sugar-shock of pop confection -- but one thing is certain: Michael Jackson will never sound so innocent again.

-- Tim Carman

Neil Young
Mirror Ball

On the surface, it seems like a fine idea, this cross-breeding of Neil Young and Pearl Jam, two generations of foot-stomping guitar rock heroes meeting to exchange ideas and a little inspiration. Neil Young may have many years and abundant eclecticism over his younger idolaters in Pearl Jam, but it's still the proto-grunge grunt rock of "Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)" that cements Young's chameleonic image in the rock pantheon. Pearl Jam, for its part, has perfected its role as a backing band by spending the last five years supporting Eddie Vedder's intolerably ham-ish frontman shtick. I, for one, always hoped I'd live to see the day when Pearl Jam split, with Vedder pursuing his solo destiny as a second-rate Joe Cocker, and remaining Pearl Jammers Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and Jack Irons making their own better-than-competent way in the world as something very much along the lines of Neil Young's support group.

With Pearl Jam's continuing fickleness threatening to splinter the band (or at least the band's audience), my pipe dream may yet come to pass, but in the meantime, it's safest to view Mirror Ball's pairing as a one-shot experiment. And as far as experiments go, this one has to be called a success: Pearl Jam injects Young's fragile melodies with a stadium-shaking roar, and Young gives Pearl Jam a frontman with something more to offer than self-indulgent angst.

Pearl Jam brings to the table a wall-of-guitar sound that backs Young's Rust Never Sleeps throwback compositions with a fuller noise than he's had to work with in years. If the beauty of sometime Young backers Crazy Horse lay in the jagged slop of an amateur band with too many amps, Pearl Jam's beauty comes from filling in the holes with fat, full, anthemic completion. Vedder is credited with background vocals, but said vocals must be relegated to some subsonic wavelength, because hell if I can hear them.

But Mirror Ball is, after all, Young's album, and he brings an aged wisdom and savvy to the collaboration. He knows, for instance, the value of a squealingly wrong note in de-perfecting the sort of too glossy rock in which Pearl Jam specializes. He's also got enough sense to keep his own vocals low in the mix, emphasizing the rough give-and-take feel of a genuine garage band -- a texture Pearl Jam has never convincingly managed until now. But if Young and Pearl Jam benefit from each other's specialties, the songs that receive their dual boost remain a distinctly mixed bag. "I'm the Ocean," "Peace and Love" and "Scenery" all earn deserved slots in Young's riff-rock catalog, while "Song X" -- a Generation X work song that sounds like the chanting troll scene in the Lord of the Rings movie -- is soaked in the inimitable guitar tone that made Young's "Cortez the Killer" such a rarely covered epic. But elsewhere, uninspired riffs are jammed into the ground with pointless passion, making it seem that Young, for all his continuing appeal, is just stomping old turf with a new boot.

Play it really loud, listen really high, and Mirror Ball may well sound, for 55 minutes and 19 seconds, like the greatest goddamn thing you ever heard. What's left when the room stops spinning is a good Neil Young CD, and probably the best work of which Pearl Jam is capable, but still a CD that is, somehow, inessential.

-- Brad Tyer

Natalie Merchant

It's hard to find much to appreciate in Natalie Merchant's solo debut, no matter how big a fan you are of Merchant from her 10,000 Maniacs days. In attempting to create a sound that's more subtle than the folksy pop of her former band, Merchant makes Tigerlily end up sounding subpar, more like a fledgling effort than something from an old pro. For the most part, Merchant doesn't seem willing to stretch her much admonished vocals; several songs, especially the mournful "Beloved Wife," could have used a little more punch. The inhibited vocals might be okay if it weren't for the pedestrian music that backs them up; many of the arrangements aren't just low-key, they're inadequate. Most irritating is the use of electric guitar -- it not only sounds out of place, it sounds like it's performed by someone who's covered too many Eric Clapton tunes. The somber "I May Know the Word" and the radio single "Carnival" wouldn't be half-bad songs if you could only cut out the annoying electric guitar solos that sneak their way into them. "Letter," which features just Merchant and her piano, is the only redeeming tune on the CD; unfortunately, it's also the shortest, and is easily overshadowed by the CD's forgettable tracks, most notably "River," a tribute to the late River Phoenix that's more boring than moving.

-- Joe Hon

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