Millions of dollars, untold spools of recording tape, and many years later, Michael Jackson has finally completed Invincible. But what year it is, at least in his mind, remains the burning question. Apparently, it's one in which Jackson is still a macho seducer on the loose, in which a snippet of Rod Serling's voice from The Twilight Zone is the height of spookiness, and where 3-D glasses (which we're told to put on in the track ''2000 Watts'') are considered -- wow! -- futuristic. In addition to whatever he may have had done to his face, the album makes you wonder if, somewhere in the late '70s, Jackson had his brain cryogenically preserved.
As always, one feels a little sorry for Jackson. So out of touch with reality that he still calls himself the ''King of Pop'' despite evidence to the contrary, he's clearly desperate to top every pop chart like he once did; Invincible features 16 tracks, a little something for everyone. Yet he appears to be so lacking in confidence that he's top-loaded the album with every conceivable collaborator he could call, from Carlos Santana and Babyface for the oldsters to Rodney Jerkins and rapper Fats for the kids.
For all of the energy and money that went into it, Invincible is curiously lacking in excitement or thrills, cheap or otherwise. What it demonstrates, depressingly, is that Jackson's music has effectively devolved into two styles: sputtery, herky-jerky rhythmic tracks and ballads with more sap than a syrup factory. This dichotomy has always existed, and last month's remastered reissues of Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous (each with mostly superfluous bonus cuts and Quincy Jones commentary) are forceful reminders.
But as they exist now, Jackson's two modes have never been so unsatisfying. It's ironic that someone renowned for grooves and steps now makes music with beats so inflexible (and lyrics so pent-up) it's virtually impossible to dance to them. For reasons that make no sense in terms of pacing, Invincible opens with three such cuts in a row. Jerkins' sharp, clomping rhythms on ''Unbreakable'' and the melodic chorus of ''Heartbreaker'' stand out. But like every pounding number since ''Jam,'' these aren't songs, they're sound effects with beats, Jackson gulping and hiccuping and swallowing his words. The ballads are a squishy bunch with glaringly banal lyrics, pleasantries like ''Butterflies'' and ''Break of Dawn'' that could emanate from just about anyone. The low point is the weeper ''You Are My Life,'' which finds him singing lines like, ''You are the sun, you make me shine, more than the stars.'' The shift between the aggressive songs and the ballads has never been more jarring. In the former, his voice seethes; in the latter, it slurps. And neither is convincing.
Jackson is capable of spraying a fresh layer of paint onto his music; the new-jack tracks on Dangerous weighed him down more than any rhythms should, but he was trying. But Invincible is his first album since Off the Wall that offers virtually no new twists. Even with a bandwagonish Notorious B.I.G. sample jammed into ''Unbreakable,'' the album feels like an anthology of his less-than-greatest hits. ''Threatened'' is ''Thriller'' redux, with Serling replacing Vincent Price; the kiddie choir on ''The Lost Children,'' in which he expresses an unsettling desire to rescue young ones, is a trick he's employed before. ''Privacy,'' a grousing call to ''stop maliciously attacking my privacy,'' was also the impetus of Bad's superior ''Leave Me Alone.'' It's also delusional: In the pre-Sept. 11 days of Condit and Monica, did Jackson truly think he was the focus of all the tabloids?
In the past, these eccentricities were compelling because they stemmed from the genuinely damaged psyche of a showbiz kid. Playing his reissued Epic albums, you hear him increasingly wigging out with each record. But as he's grown older, these idiosyncrasies just seem pitiable -- sadly stunted growth. It may take a lifetime for Jackson to straighten himself out, but he doesn't seem any closer at 43. On Invincible, his come-on songs to women are petulant rather than mature, and his save-the-world odes feel more fueled by ego than care. (The frightening new nose he debuts on the cover is another matter.) Now that his muse has forsaken him to the point where relative disappointments like Bad and Dangerous sound like half successes, he's become more of a fairytale figure than he ever imagined: He's pop's Lost Boy.