Man In A Minor Key

Michael E. Ross reviews George Michael's album "Older".

Published May 20, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

George Michael, the cool troubadour of pop and soul, has learned a thing or three about the fickle nature of love, corporate and otherwise.
"Older," his first full-length recording since 1990, shows Michael very much at the top of his game: the voice that launched a thousand heartaches is still by turns plaintive and powerful. What's changed is his outlook. The man who once told us "you gotta have faith, faith, faith" has had his own faith sorely tested.
Michael has always worn his heart on his cufflinked sleeve. Ever the unabashed romantic, Michael has parlayed affairs of the heart into music that, while frustrating critics less enamored of straightforward depictions of romance, still sold in the millions. As the principal songwriter of Wham!, Michael brought both a worthy set of pipes and an unerring sense of musicianship -- a feel for both the pop ditty and the thoughtful, provocative composition.
As a solo performer, Michael reflected the depth of Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder as vocal influences, with he and such singers as Lisa Stansfield and Paul Young giving the term "black music" some very flexible interpretations. "Faith," Michael's breakthrough 1987 solo album, elevated him to heartthrob status. The songs "Faith" and "Father Figure" topped the charts, and such brazen entreaties as "I Want Your Sex" upset various pillars of morality -- all of which should have pleased the powers at Columbia, Michael's former record label.
Perhaps the trouble started with "Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1" (1990), the album that found Michael moving musically in a more reflective, arguably less commercial direction.
The fickle suitor, Sony Music (which had acquired the Columbia label), discovering that the new album was "Faith" no more, claimed that "Listen Without Prejudice" was inconsistent with Michael's past work and, as such, unreleasable. In late 1992, Michael announced his plans to sue to end his $12 million contract with Sony. What followed, starting in October 1993, was a protracted legal melee during which Michael was barred from releasing new material. The embargo lasted 21 months, until Michael was released from his Sony contract in July 1995.
You'd think that, having achieved such a creative emancipation proclamation, any new release would be an upbeat, high-fiving affair. But it's almost impossible to listen to any of the 11 "Older" songs -- which he wrote and produced -- without thinking of the complexities of his recent past. This year's model of George Michael is chastened, hardened, sobered -- a man in a minor key.
The best songs of this collection -- the single "Jesus to a Child," "The Strangest Thing" and "Move On" -- are almost painfully thoughtful. In lush, silken musical settings, Michael speaks the world-weary language of scorned love. There's a wistful, haunted quality to many of these tracks. Gone, it seems, is the happy-go-luckier George Michael of years past. The album is filled with rueful images of wasted time, flight from despair, profound disappointments and the pain of loss.
But it's not all gloom and doom. On "Fastlove" and "Star People," Michael gets back to bold, bumptious funk, the singer clearly reveling in those buoyant rhythms of the not-too-distant past. In the jazzy, shimmering "Move On," Michael makes peace with the idea of transcending old difficulties. By the album's last track, the instrumental "Free," Michael's come full circle, from sadness over what's happened to hope for what comes next. In that brief coda, brisk but ambiguous, uplifting but not upbeat, George Michael gives us a life lesson as a man not just older and wiser but stronger, too, for winning a war he never expected to fight in the first place.

By Michael E. Ross

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