Whatever grim spirits drove Michael Jackson, they were hovering around his music long before HIStory – a double album that, through hubris or masochism (or commercial good sense) directly linked his greatest songs to his newest. There’s terror and paranoia to spare on the hits, even before Jordan Chandler’s accusations against Jackson curdled his public profile: the HIStory songs were darker still. Whether it was the agony of wrongful accusation or the cold horror of discovery motivating Jackson – or just a development of his existing demons – his music around this time is a sea of sorrow and fear.
This applies even to a track like “You Are Not Alone”, not written by Jackson, but which ends up sounding as diffused, sad, and lost as any of his own songs. As an attempt at tenderness and comfort, it’s hardly convincing. For all that this period of Jackson can be a tough listen, its best songs are as compelling as anything he’d done since Thriller. But they’re usually the ones where he sounds most adrift or angry, not the ones where he’s trying to persuade someone – or himself -that things are going to be OK.
Glimpses of the Jackson his 80s fans loved poke through, which just makes this trudge all the sadder. His voice hasn’t lost any of its sensitivity, and the “whispered three words” break is a brief and lovely glimpse of the old Jackson balladry, the tender, courtly singer who made “Human Nature” or “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”. But the rest is suffocating, an endless snowfall of smothering triple stresses – “YOU are NOT a LONE, I’LL be HERE for YOU”, on and on and on, with the brutal truck driver’s gear change before the final chorus giving the impression of a ghastly forced smile. The situation of the song seems to slide – a departed lover? a bereavement? a reconciliation? – but whatever R Kelly intended it’s hard to hear it as sung to anyone but its singer. His hiccups and vocal tics – also carried over from happier times – now seem like Gollum-esque sobs, and his shift to his growlier register over the fade underscores how badly this song fails to soothe: the last we hear of Jackson is a miserable plea of “GOTTA STOP BEING ALONE!” howled low in the mix.