When Michael Jackson’s new album Xscape was announced back at the end of March the reaction was muted. Epic had already released one posthumous album, 2010’s Michael, pieced together from outtakes and polished up by contemporary producers and the uninspired, mercenary-feeling results (not to mention the rumors that Jackson hadn’t actually sung on some of the songs) just sort of underlined how gruesome and fucked up the entire situation around his death had been. Going back to that well a second time just seemed gross.
Xscape, on the other hand, is remarkably enjoyable for an album of music by a virtually reanimated dead man. Maybe it’s a result of increased distance from his messy death, or more attentive work by the producers who finished the songs, or maybe it was just a matter of them working from better raw material.
The album’s lead single, “Love Never Felt So Good,” which Jackson cowrote with Paul Anka, started as a 1983 recording and was finished by small team of producers led by Timbaland. Working alongside Anka seems to have inspired Jackson to indulge in his love of pre-psychedelic American pop, and the constantly ascending melody combined with Jackson’s peak-era performance results in one of those moments where he seems to stop time and suspend gravity for a chorus at a time. It seemed unlikely that we’d ever get one of those again, so to hear Michael at the height of his abilities doing exactly what he did best is almost shocking.
Epic is releasing “Love Never Felt So Good” in a few different forms: the original 1983 demo, Timbaland’s new rework, Timbaland’s version with a verse by frequent Michael Jackson impersonator Justin Timberlake, and an electro remix by Fedde Le Grande. The Timberlake duet version just debuted at number 20 on the Hot 100. It’s possible that this could be an early peak driven by true believers streaming it on a loop, but it seems more likely that this is just the beginning. “Love Never Felt So Good” certainly feels like a legitimate Michael Jackson single from back when that mattered. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see it perform like one.