Nobody expected an extended metaphor more blatant than Ariana Grande’s ‘positions’ this year. Then again, nobody expected Michael Jackson’s daughter to go full alt-folk with her debut solo album. To call a break-up record ‘wilted’ is one thing, but lines like “I can’t grow without your love to water my roots” take the metaphor to a whole new level of wince. Fortunately, Paris Jackson ventures beyond sticky imagery to nail the folk-pop genre and step out from the shadow of her inheritance.
Jackson’s embrace of acoustic folk-pop may be a canny severing of her musical identity from her lineage. In many ways, being the daughter of the King of Pop is an enviable position if you want to make music – the usual barriers cease to exist. You can recruit your favourite band to your project, if you like, and Jackson does, inviting along Atlantan indie rockers Manchester Orchestra for production duties, frontman Andy Hull also supplying vocals on the song ‘eyelids’. But it’s surely daunting to release music as Michael Jackson’s daughter, association and expectation flung higher than a pole vault before you’ve as much as written a note.
Of course, Jackson’s already taken up other popstar-daughter pursuits – modelling, acting, and activism – but she turned to music in 2018 with The Soundflowers, a duo featuring her ex-boyfriend (the heartbreak behind ‘wilted’). They peddled harmless, earnest hippy indie, which partly explains the direction of ‘wilted’, though Jackson’s solo work is stronger with more edge, the album artwork evocative of Tim Burton – albeit if he’d been instructed by Taylor Swift.
In fact, an imagined mood-board for ‘wilted’ might look like this: Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Sugababes (yep, really), Snow Patrol (specifically, the ‘Open Your Eyes music video where they drive around pretty Paris streets), soundtracks to films like ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ or anything by John Green, and notebooks filled with lyrics copied out in teenage handwriting. None of these things are necessarily bad! If Jackson’s original vision for the record fell along such romantic-melodramatic lines, ‘wilted’ succeeds – and more importantly, it feels genuine.
The first half of songs hint at a darker alt-rock future for Jackson. ‘repair’ flaunts her woozy lilt against heavier National-esque arrangements and the guitar and piano that underpin the album. ‘undone’ is similarly promising for its sonic weight – until you realise the post-chorus sounds a lot like Sugababes’ ‘About You Now’.
Still, ‘wilted’ yokes itself to current times with the lower-case song title thing all the cool kids do nowadays, and an astrology-themed track. ‘scorpio rising’ feels extremely 2020 – at least until the outro degrades into horror-style vocals, the only potential nod to MJ.
Album closer ‘another spring’ features the kind of sentimental schmaltz only Brandon Flowers is allowed to get away with, so that you leave ‘wilted’ feeling a little treacly. The title track is the real clanger, though, proceeding to expose every angle of the plant/love metaphor until no mystery is left. Jackson’s lyrics won’t win her the Nobel Prize for Literature any time soon, but of course that’s not her purpose. ‘wilted’ aims at a competent, inoffensive target, and hits it soundly.
You sense Paris Jackson would like to be Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers at the same time. On ‘wilted’ she ends up a lite version of both, strong enough at her chosen genre to escape comparisons to her dad’s music, but never breaking new ground. Funnily enough, Phoebe Bridgers’ and Maggie Rogers’ recent cover of Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Iris’ might be a good destination for Paris Jackson to aim for: hackneyed lines that everybody secretly once loved and wrote down in a notebook, delivered with sweet vocal perfection.
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