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Portrait of the artist as a grown man

Michael Jackson is a man of 43, and growing up in public has had liabilities he faces in a reflective and rambunctious new album, “Invincible.” No more blood on the dance floor; sweat and tears are enough.
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The rumors of Michael Jackson’s comeback are greatly exaggerated. Having made appearances on and off stage all year (he met Ariel Sharon in March, opened a Nasdaq session in the summer, made a surprise appearance with ’N Sync at the MTV Video Music Awards and headlined the United We Stand benefit in Washington), he has disregarded a basic law of entertainment: It can’t be a comeback if you never go away.

But Jackson has long broken pop-culture’s rules. After years of curious personal behavior, two broken marriages and a devastating molestation scandal that might have toppled a less single-minded celebrity, he’s back in the spotlight with “Invincible” (Epic), his first studio album in six years. Fans who think he’s frozen in the multiplatinum amber of “Thriller” and “Bad,” two of his biggest albums, may be disappointed. The “Invincible” Jackson is a wiser man of 43, for whom growing up in public has had liabilities he faces in a record both reflective and rambunctious. No more blood on the dance floor; sweat and tears are enough.

Banking the fires
Jackson still brings his love of electronica, infectious rhythms and impassioned balladry to this record. And he has happily borrowed from rock, rap, and the R&B traditions that formed his musical education. But Jackson has banked the fires from the past. With age 40 in his rear-view mirror, Jackson is addressing not the cartoon horrors of “Thriller,” but the scarier prospect of life as an adult.

Listen to “Whatever Happens”: The song starts with vaguely ominous whistling (suitable, perhaps, for walking in a graveyard). The seemingly innocuous lyric — “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand” — could apply to a man and woman, or a father and child, in some forbidding place. The threatening things of our world seem to demand that reliance on the familiar (now, in the post-Sept. 11 world, more than ever).

Jackson plays up his romantic side, the come-hither vocal magician of sandpaper and silk, on “Heaven Can Wait,” “Break of Dawn” and “Butterflies” — three heart-on-sleeve ballads in which Jackson’s feel for lapidary harmonies, lush production values and unabashed romanticism rises to, and above, the occasion.

The star's world
He hasn’t lost his sense of the star’s world. It’s hard to hear some of these songs — “Whatever Happens,” “Privacy” and “Unbreakable” — without recalling the crises of Jackson’s life (an invasive press, issues of self-identity, conflicts with family) and his attempts to deal with them.

“The Lost Children” is Jackson’s latest appeal for protecting the world’s children — not an impersonal, milk-carton sentiment, but a ballad whose petition takes on new meaning and urgency for Jackson, now a father of two.

“Invincible” marks a break with Jackson’s past. Musicianship throughout is as solid as ever, but the trademark Jackson dance tracks are less frenetic; there’s nothing like the snap-hammer rhythms of “Billie Jean” or the jangly lecture of “Black and White.” The music is more laid-back; the comic asides somehow more thoughtful.

Jackson’s not Bad or Dangerous, and certainly not Invincible. Boastful album titles aside, this latest Jackson solo outing shows real circumspection, maybe even a sense of mortality, has crept into the proceedings. This is a portrait of the artist as a grown man — not the wunderkind of the Jackson 5, not the tyro of the “Thriller” era.

It’s to his credit that, years after his biggest triumphs, Jackson didn’t try to replicate the style of those monster successes. “Invincible” is the music of moving on, of a man grappling with never having had the relative luxury of growing up in the dark (like most of us), of someone comfortable with life in his own highly visible skin. That’s not exactly wisdom, but it is intelligence; in Michael Jackson’s hands, it’s got a good beat, too.