Revisiting a Classic: Michael Jackson's Off the Wall (1979)
By Jordan Pytosh
1979 was the unspoken end of an era for disco music, replaced by much of the pop of the 1980’s. It was also a turning point for Michael Jackson, who was fresh off the success of the iconic musical The Wiz. Up until this point, he had released almost twenty albums that showed his prowess to an ever-growing audience, but he had yet to achieve superstardom. Enter Quincy Jones, producer and composer extraordinaire, who was able to liberate Jackson from the constraints of the Motown formula. In addition to Jones’ expertise and experience, Off the Wall was backed by a fantastic set of songwriters, session musicians, and a whole host of influences from various genres of music. Off the Wall can be described as a one-in-a-million, lightning-in-a-bottle time capsule capturing the dynamic nature of music as it entered the MTV era, bringing sophisticated soul to the energetic fumes of disco.
Thriller may be the more culturally famous work of its time, but I would be very fervent in claiming that Off the Wall has a set of songs and arrangements that rival its successor’s finest moments. In the 1979 work, the grooves have more bounce, the intimacy is more complexly human, and the raw power of Jackson’s vocals is better showcased over the album's lush arrangements. Songs like “Workin’ Day and Night,” “It’s the Falling in Love,” and “Off the Wall,” in addition to the album's more three famous singles, still impress due to all the facets of Jackson’s persona coming together with grace and style, in a way that has rarely been replicated. The instrumentation on “She’s Out of My Life,” simple yet lush, displays an impeccable sense of grief and sadness that feels crushingly real. The lyrics stand out in this environment, and it sounds like Jackson is crying through his high-pitched delivery—an observation confirmed by his tears in the music video.
Yet, while Michael is obviously the star, often uncredited is the fantastic instrumentation that helps bring Michael’s vocals to life. Jazz fusion auteur George Duke makes appearances on “Off the Wall” and “Girlfriend,” accompanying both with synth arpeggios interwoven with the other instrumental lines. It is reminiscent of Duke’s own work, especially with how ethereal the synth lines sound. Stevie Wonder’s arrangements on “I Can’t Help It” make it feel like a song from Songs in the Key of Life; the pure soul of Wonder’s magnum opus cradles Jackson’s beautiful vocals. Phil Upchurch, an underrated soul guitarist, creates a fantastic accompaniment to the disco grooves of “Working Day and Night,” given how his silky guitar accompanies the hard hitting kicks and snares on the track. Other highlights include the saxophone arrangements of Larry Williams, the ethereal vocals of Patti Austin, and the strings of Johnny Mandel.
Off the Wall still holds up in the 21st century. It contains so many elements that R&B singers of the modern music scene have tried again and again to emulate - but none can quite reach Jackson’s heights. Michael Jackson was a one of a kind soul singer who knew how to synthesize the genres he grew up on into a sum greater than its parts. And Off the Wall reminds us that he will most likely continue to be unmatched.