'He can certainly turn a couple of tricks in the genre, though such facility ultimately leaves many of the songs sounding bland and empty - ultimately there's an absence of character'

George Michael Older Aegean/ Virgin CDV2802
His first post-Sony album finds George Michael with a much firmer grasp on his own identity than seemed the case on 1990's patchy Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. In particular, he seems determined to complete the transition from former teeny star to mature adult artist, an intention primarily signalled by the LP's blunt, would-be worldly title, and seconded by the dominant musical colour, which is a sort of smoky brown. Gone is the anthemic disco of "Freedom", and long gone is the faux-rockabilly of "Faith". The closest Older comes to vibrant modern pop is the current single "Fastlove", a conflation of various catchy elements: the loping swingbeat groove, the G-funk synthesiser whine, and the lift from Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots" which carries its chorus.

Apart from that track, it's virtually wall-to-wall featherbedded ballads like "Jesus to a Child", soft-focus confections of strings, flutes, acoustic guitars and muted horns, in various combinations. The album is partly dedicated to the Brazilian easy-listening auteur Antonio Carlos Jobim, who, according to George, "changed the way I listened to music". The evidence is all over Older, which approximates the smooth, "sophisticated" sound of Jobim's work at every available opportunity, without surrendering completely to the latter's Latin rhythms. "Move On", for instance, opts for a cool- jazz flavour and 3am club ambience, while "To be Forgiven" adapts the flute figure from Debussy's L'apres-midi d'un faune before meandering off into its own oxbow lake.

The most successful application of Jobim's techniques is on "The Strangest Thing", where Michael's breathy vocals and the gentle shimmer of synthetic hi-hat and congas are embellished with an evocative, bouzoukoid guitar part. With lines like "There's a liar in my head/ there's a thief upon my bed", it's also the most succinct and satisfying of the album's many musings upon romantic deceit and disruption, that being the type of love song that George has deemed most befitting for a mature artist. He can certainly turn a variety of tricks in the genre, though such facility ultimately leaves many of them sounding bland and empty: ultimately, there's an absence of character at the heart of Older, where a truly mature artist would have chanced exposing something of his soul's vulnerability.