Review Summary: Well written, fun, extremely catchy, and more consistent than Thriller - it's easy to see why Off the Wall made Jackson a pop superstar.
For every artist that finds massive success in the music market (and for this review’s purpose, more “definitive” acts), there’s usually a specific album that propels them into the public eye and an audience with wide-open arms. Nevermind
helped make Nirvana huge seemingly overnight, and established them as one of the biggest names in grunge. The hiring of almighty Bruce Dickinson coupled with the release of The Number of the Beast
would transform Iron Maiden from a “quite successful” band to the definitive metal juggernaut they are now.* And although rapper Jay-Z made his best album the first time (in 1996), it was five years later when The Blueprint
would re-establish him as one of most critically and commercially successful hip-hop artists.
After being part of the Jackson Five for more than half a decade (and being recognized as a musical prodigy by Rolling Stone, among others), Michael starred in a musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz (“The Wiz”) and formed a relationship with composer Quincy Jones, who agreed to produce Jackon’s solo debut. Off the Wall
would be the first album to generate four top 10 singles, and set the stage for Jackson to cement his place in history with the follow-up Thriller
A few listens to Off the Wall
should leave no doubt as to why it became such a huge success. Save for one exception, the album consists of bouncy and energetic R & B influenced pop (or quite poppy R & B) with close to no filler. Much like Thriller
, it opens in grand fashion. “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” wastes almost no time in grabbing your attention, with horns, strings, and guitar forming a rhythmic foundation for Jackson’s calm falsetto. At the two and a half minute mark, another horn section gives way to a short guitar solo. Although it does get repetitive to a slight degree, “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” nonetheless accomplishes a feat that seems so uncommon in pop music – a high quality song with a running time just over six minutes. None of the nine tracks following it will quite match this opener, but rest assured that several of them come close.
Not only does “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” open Off the Wall
on a high note, it exhibits all the major strengths of the album. Horns, strings, electric guitar, and real drums are among the various instruments forming the sonic template for nearly the entire album, which means that Off the Wall
doesn’t suffer from poor production – it’s quite the opposite. Not only does it sound excellent from a this production standpoint, but there are also enough instrumental hooks to make the music almost
work well without a strong vocal performance. However, there’s no reason to worry about that.
As good as the music is, it’s Michael’s performance that truly elevates the pop here from good to excellent. There’s an irresistible charm that Jackson exudes almost every second that he’s singing, and a bare minimum of one great hook to be found in each song (save “She’s Out of My Life”). Jackson’s rather natural falsetto is far from annoying, his singing voice is far above average, and his delivery is spot on. Off the Wall
sounds like the man is just having fun, and doing one heck of a job in the process
Although Michael Jackson the performer is much better than Jackson the songwriter, that doesn’t mean the songs he writes are weak in any form. On the contrary, his two songwriting contributions to Off the Wall
, “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Workin’ Day and Night”, are both standout tracks, and “Get on the Floor” (co-written by Louis Johnson) is pretty good as well. Yet another comparison to Thriller
is the star power present (or rather, behind) two of the songs. “Girlfriend” and “I Can’t Help It” are written by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder respectively; the former is a lighthearted song that might have fit in on an album like Help!
, and “I Can’t Help It” kicks off the final trio of songs after the lone ballad “She’s Out of My Life”.
There’s one exception to almost every strength of Off the Wall
, and that is “She’s Out of My Life”. Here, Jackson and his songwriting team opt for the ballad route, and the results are pretty average at best. The lyrical theme of a man heartbroken has potential, but instead of being emotional and heartfelt, Jackson sounds whiny, almost like a child who just needs a couple minutes to get over a slight physical injury. Backing synths don’t really help either, and thus “She’s Out of My Life” sticks out like a sore thumb placed in the middle of the album.
The last great strength of Off the Wall
– consistency – is also the reason it’s bettered by Thriller
. As mentioned before, nothing quite
matches the opener “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”, but the rest of the album stays at such a high quality you don’t necessarily notice. But even the best song isn’t able to reach the benchmark set by the 15-minute midsection of “Thriller”, “Beat it”, and “Billie Jean”. Superior or not, it should be obvious why the album made Michael Jackson a pop superstar: it’s catchy, fun, and well written, and with a running time shortly over 42 minutes, it’s too short to really get tedious. It’s not his best, but it still comes fairly close, and considering the artist in question, that’s saying a lot
Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough
Workin’ Day and Night
Off the Wall
It’s the Falling in Love