Michael Jackson once described ‘Human Nature’ as “music with wings”. The metaphor was apt. A gorgeous synth-ballad, “Human Nature” glides effortlessly over shimmering strings and sparkling scenery. A song about desire, youth, and yearning, it evokes a vibrant cityscape in which the narrator wanders in the twilight between reality and dream. Music critic David Stubbs described the track as a “thing of unnatural beauty, with Jackson’s vocal shiver arousing an electric frisson across the skin of the song and the sheen of the ‘80’s production triggering [a] sort of ecstatic, self-perpetuating, hall of mirrors effect.” In its 1982 review, the New York Times called “Human Nature” Thriller’s most “striking song:” This is a haunting, brooding ballad by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis, with an irresistible chorus, and it should be an enormous hit.” More than 20 years later, Slant’s Eric Henderson concurred, calling the track “probably the best musical composition on the album and surely one of the only A/C ballads of its era worth remembering.”
Jackson’s brilliant vocal interpretation, though, is what fully realized the song. “The way his voice tumbles down the notes in the chorus is a master class in vocal delivery,” observes J. Edward Keyes, “and his pleading repetition of ‘Why? Why?’ is the sound of quiet heartbreak.” Indeed, while the song pulses with the aching intoxication of possibility, “a rich seam of melancholy” also runs through it. The subtle suggestive lyrics convey a Gatsby-esque yearning. “Looking out/Across the nighttime,” Jackson sings, “The city winks a sleepless eye/ Hear her voice/ Shake my window/ Sweet seducing sighs.” The imagery throughout conjures the magic of a night in the city. The narrator is both observed (“by electric eyes”) and observes (“She like the way I stare”) as he makes his way through the neon streets.
One can imagine Jackson drew from his personal experience leaving the sheltered confines of his parents’ home and experiencing the nightlife of New York while working on The Wiz in 1978. His vocals convey both wonder and a curious detachment, as he dreams of the intimacy and connection that eludes him. “If this town is just an apple,” he tells himself, “Then let me take a bite.” In the final coda, Jackson delivers some of the most sublime strains of his career as he let out a wordless falsetto cry.
- Man In The Music