Given the media circus that hounded Michael Jackson toward the end of his life, it's easy to overlook the impact that he had on popular music. His first great album, the one that allowed him to emerge as a blindingly original entertainer - a preternaturally gifted dancer and singer - was Off the Wall. Jackson's masterpiece has always been considered to be 1982's commercial monster Thriller, but with the benefit of hindsight his masterpiece may actually be the more cohesive and soulful Off the Wall.
This may be the quintessential disco album, even though it came right at the end of the disco era. Quincy Jones' characteristically exquisite production is all bevelled edges and filigreed sonic detail that swirls around the backbeat. The sound of the album creates a strong contrast when compared with Jackson's contemporaries like Chic (the outfit behind the immortal "Le Freak") and their hard-hitting, funk-influenced sound that even Jackson's hero Diana Ross would pursue on her classic 1980 album Diana.
Even with its soft and demure bokeh of sound, there's possibly no greater invocation for dancing than the pulsing bass and mellow whispers that introduce classic opener "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough." The track is like a disco fantasia, restless strings lifting toward an ecstasy that hasn't ever really been equalled. Along with tracks like the sweat-soaked "Workin' Day & Night" and "Get on the Floor," the record immediately makes the case for itself as one of the all-time great dance albums.
"Rock with You" is possibly the most perfect distillation of the essence of Michael Jackson. On it, he's both The Greatest Dancer and the sweetest guy in the room. As disco love songs go, there's none as immediate and touching as this one, with as many captivating hooks.
Speaking of love songs, the album's one ballad "She's Out of My Life," is delivered with just as much conviction as the record's most dancefloor friendly fare. Strangely, despite being devoid of any percussion to speak of, it doesn't stop the album in its tracks, but instead allows its gorgeous atmosphere to develop. The electric piano that accompanies Jackson's gorgeous vocal is invested with the same luminous effervescence as any other song on the album.
That's the genius of Off the Wall. Michael Jackson was a multi-faceted performer who refused to be confined to just one thing - perhaps because of having his image and sound controlled for so many years as a child star. The album's title track, from the strange wordless vocal of the intro onwards, is an expression of freedom, or at least an expression of the desire to let go. Later on, the unbearably lush"Can't Help It" is like its sequel - a document of the almost inexpressible joy Jackson feels when he lets the rhythm take over.
So while Thriller may still be the top-selling album of all time, its synth-assisted beats can sound stodgy while Off the Wall still sounds fresh and clean. The unabashed glee and sonic hedonism of disco is returning to music, and this record still holds up as one of the all-time greats. No matter what happened in the future, the Michael Jackson that was captured on this record was an unstoppable force, and an aspirational figure to any entertainer. Nearly four decades have done nothing to dull its shine.