Out of the “Big 3” made by Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones , Off The Wall seems to be the one lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t have 5 #1 singles to its name like Bad and it isn’t Thriller, a widely accepted shorthand for a blockbuster record. A lot of that may have to do with the fact that Jackson hadn’t yet made his stamp with music videos, which gave many of those songs an unstoppable added dimension. But Off The Wall is arguably the most fascinating album Jackson achieves the rare feat of being timeless yet firmly representative of a certain era.
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” – One of two songs ( “The Way You Make Me Feel” is the other) that best illustrate the special alchemy between Jackson and Jones. At its core “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is a simple, playful melody that has undeniable catchiness. But without the subtle yet iconic layers from Jones (the chromatic string riff, funky percussion and the contrasting shout chorus) it’s entirely likely that seed from Jackson reaches a dead end. It certainly couldn’t get away with carrying on for six minutes.
“Rock With You” – It’s tough to handicap where exactly this song lands in the hierarchy of Jackson’s catalogue. Though a hit single and a favorite of many, it’s not typically mentioned in the first gasp of most iconic Jackson songs the way “Billie Jean” or “Man In The Mirror” is. The track is smooth and tasteful, with sneaky flourishes that set the mood. “Rock With You” is one of MJ’s finest performances on record, filled with a charming innocence and a zeal to entertain.
“Workin’ Day And Night” – It’s fitting that this track is absolutely manic given the desperation and restlessness of the lyric. Jones’s arrangement brilliantly weaves in and around the vocal – at times supportive (answering guitar licks), jarring (off beat horn stabs) and playful (the sneaky percussion shakes after “scratch my shoulder”). It’s hard to not aurally imagine or correct the vocal towards the more fully formed solo MJ (Bad or Dangerous era). It seems slightly too sweet against the raucous energy of the accompaniment.
“Get On The Floor” – Louis Johnson’s bass is the star here, to a point where the vocals almost seem superfluous. In the Journey From Motown To Off The Wall documentary Questlove said that this album was only a misstep away from being a dated disco record. “Get On The Floor” feels like the closest the album comes to that edge.
“Off The Wall” – With its off beat entrance, ghouly back up vocals, oddly timed bass line and disjointed post chorus hook (“live your life off the wall!”), this song walks a weird line indeed. Yet it works, and brilliantly so. It’s packed with disco era mission statements that sound, somehow, totally earnest. Despite being the album’s title track, “Off The Wall” remains an underrated gem.
“Girlfriend” – It’s not often that a cover exceeds the original, especially on a Paul McCartney song, but Jackson’s take on “Girlfriend” is far superior. McCartney’s helium-tinged rendition on London Town sounds like a demo by comparison. Curiously, Jackson’s cover totally omits the B section of the song found on McCartney’s original. Perhaps the odd meter change was deemed excessive or interruptive?
“She’s Out Of My Life” – An emotional ballad tucked away between so many danceable jams, “She’s Out Of My Life” hits the listener between the eyes. The mythology of this performance (Jackson being so overcome with emotion he couldn’t make it through the end without crying) got a little out of hand over the years and has spoiled it slightly. Nonetheless it’s widely regarded as his seminal, coming of age moment.
“I Can’t Help It” – Sequentially this is the most important moment on the album. Immediately returning to a sizzling disco groove following the emotional catharsis of “She’s Out Of My Life” would sound odd. Yet lingering in that dark template could threaten to torpedo the album. Enter co-writer Stevie Wonder who’s “I Can’t Help It” lifts the vibe just enough. There’s an unpredictability factor in the melody that leaves the listener hanging on to every word. In an album with several unsung victories, “I Can’t Help It” as a song and as a moment is the biggest of them.
“It’s The Falling In Love” – Though a fine song and musically compatible to the rest of the album, listen closely and it becomes questionable whether or not “It’s The Falling In Love” is a great fit for Off The Wall. For much of the album Jackson sings with a blissful innocence, sweet but never entirely direct in its implications. Yet on this song he sings with a savvy, yin/yang outlook on love (“It’s the falling in love that’s making me high/it’s the falling in love that’s making me cry”) and has his duet partner instruct him to “come and do me.” Uhh…
“Burn This Disco Out” – Just when it seemed like Off The Wall was approaching a soft landing, Jackson turns up the party one last time. There’s too much unsteadiness happening musically (the bass and drums always seem at odds) for “Burn This Disco Out” to settle in as a dance jam, instead serving more like a closing credits sequence. It reminds the audience that, despite its darker shades, Off The Wall at its core is about good times and high energy entertainment.
FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER -> @PatrickGoesPop