Stop Messing With Every Dead Artist’s Legacy

Originally published on JUNKEE – May 9, 2014

This week, a new Michael Jackson album will be released. The fact this doesn’t seem at all surprising is a sad testament to how the catalogues of deceased artists are often treated. Xscape is ostensibly being marketed as a new Michael Jackson album. It contains eight songs, adding up-to-date production flourishes to various scattered recordings made and discarded over seventeen years, as if to finally fulfill the late artist’s childhood dream of jumping onto a Timbaland joint.

Make no mistake, the intention is most probably noble, the collaborators reverential to a fault. But in fifty years’ time, there will be a Michael Jackson album named Xscape and another named Thriller, and they will sit together on whatever cataloguing system we imbibe music from, with no authorial differentiation.

Somebody’s poisoned the waterhole

To any young, music-hungry kid in a pre-internet town, an artist like Jimi Hendrix must have appeared to be the most prolific musician in the world. His 1967 album Are You Experienced? is routinely regarded as one of the finest debut records ever released, and the perfect jumping-off point for anyone wishing to delve. Yet in numerous record stores, the album sits, bereft of context, alongside a staggering twelve posthumous ‘studio albums’, 20 live albums, 22 compilations, and 24 ‘official bootlegs’ (a contradiction in terms if ever one existed). At the time of his death, Hendrix was working on what was to be only his fourth studio album — a double record. He had six songs near completion, with another 20 or so sketches. As ‘Experience Hendrix’ (a company set up by Jimi’s father) took over the handling of his catalogue, any recording that featured Hendrix on guitar or vocals — no matter how embryonic, aimless, or lo-fi — made its way into the official canon of Jimi Hendrix releases.

Similarly, Jeff Buckley released only one studio album and a four-song live EP during his lifetime. Of the 12 songs he released, five were covers and four were co-writes. Buckley’s posthumous canonisation is about lost promise, a flame destined to flicker briefly, with his beautiful, slight catalogue only adding to the weight of this loss. He left behind a handful of four-track recordings, plus a number of earlier-abandoned studio sessions originally intended for a second album. These were lovingly compiled into a 20-song, two-disc collection, Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, which provided an intriguing but ultimately incomplete picture of how his second album may have been.

Then the posthumous madness began. Five live albums plus a live EP followed, as did two separate best-of collections. Debut album Grace was expanded to include 13-bonus tracks, with all but two either covers not intended for release or alternative versions; nice but wholly unnecessary. His four-song EP, recorded live in an East Village coffee shop over two days, was expanded to 34 tracks (plus a four-track DVD), including between song mutterings such as the vital ‘Monologue – False Start, Apology, Miles Davis’ and the eight-second ‘Monologue – The Suckiest Water’. The fact that a random search of his digitalised catalogue is statistically more likely to throw up these tracks than the soaring Last Goodbye is a troubling by-product of such releases that perhaps couldn’t have been considered at the time of release.

But Jeff Buckley seems positively posthumously lazy compared to the recent output of Tupac Shakur. 2Pac was a fiercely ambitious artist, who blurred the line between thug myth-making and real life to the point where it literally saw him jailed, then killed. Shakur was not going to let anything as unceremonious as a bullet to the right lung halt his career, managing to pump out seven posthumous ‘studio albums’, two live albums, ten compilation albums, and two remix albums (posthumous Elvis got involved in the mid-2000s remixing fad, as well). He got the chance to collaborate with artists he never could have dreamed of working with during the 25 years he was on this earth: Eminem, Elton John, Ashanti, Ja Rule, T.I. and Nas, to name but a few. He even appeared at Coachella in hologram form, alongside such luminaries as 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa.

Parents just don’t understand

Notably, all these catalogues are controlled by the late artists’ parents. Parental love is boundless, but it is also blind. While it isn’t at all surprising these estate holders want as much of their children’s work to see the light of day, willing their flames to continue to burn brightly, often these artists were fiercely protective of what they put out into the world.

Jeff Buckley was deeply dissatisfied with the studio recordings that make up disc one of Sketches… which is why he later demoed the four-track versions compiled on disc two, so he could further work at capturing the sound inside his head. Michael Jackson would often record more than 80 tracks for each album, meticulously crafting and ruthlessly culling over many years, until the finished album was up to his standards. This is an artist who, when the world was spewing superlatives over the Motown 25 performance where he unveiled the ‘Moonwalk’ for the first time, saw the entire thing as a failure because he didn’t stay suspended on his toes during one inconsequential dance move. As a child, his father would strike him if he screwed up a vocal take or missed a cue. It is doubtful that he would have given his blessing for the writers and producers of ‘S Club Party’ to complete one of his demo recordings and officially release it under his name.

The impulse to keep these catalogues alive is an understandable one. The main problem with Xscape is that Jackson clearly has a wealth of worthwhile work that should legitimately — and tastefully — see the light of day. ‘Al Capone’, a prototype of ‘Smooth Criminal’ recorded in 1986 and included on the 2012 Bad 25 set, acts as both a stunning stand-alone track and a perfect example of Jackson’s creative process in flux. An exhaustive rarities collection would be a genuinely worthwhile addition to his catalogue, and provide the kind of closure catalogue completists crave. Neither Xscape, nor the hastily assembled 2010 set Michael, attempt to act as this, instead hoping to contemporise the music of an artist who was already light years ahead of the pack.

At worst, such releases show a complete disregard for the existing catalogue, and at best, the arrogance to assume the ability to add to it. Jackson does not need a Y2K14 re-spray, nor does his catalogue need propping up or remixing: it stands (then leans forward, then spins, and moonwalks) for itself. And while vault-diving exercises have often resulted in holy grail for fans and labels alike (see the tasteful handling of posthumous Elliott Smith and Nirvana releases for examples of how unreleased recordings can be rolled out respectfully), more often it’s just sitting 15 minutes of aimless, stoned shredding alongside ‘Purple Haze’ and calling them both Jimi Hendrix songs.

When the dust settles, history will hopefully separate an artist’s quality material from these barrel-scraping exercises. But the idea that a kid in 2050 may begin to explore Michael Jackson’s catalogue, only to enter via a digital duet with Akon, is a worrying one indeed.

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