Album: George Michael

Patience, Sony

It's eight years since George Michael's last collection of original material, Older. So: eight years older, is he any the wiser?

Well, perhaps. Patience is a thoughtful, sophisticated work that flip-flops back and forth between, on the one hand, intense ballads dealing with serious matters - societal ills, the failure of faith (the belief, not the album), suicide and George's own life; and on the other, pounding disco anthems celebrating shameless hedonism. Somewhere in the middle, the two modes collide to effect the immaculate R&B sheen of tracks such as "American Angel", "Precious Box" and the single "Amazing".

The album's framed by the title track and its reprise, a solo piano lament for the ravages of war and famine in a time of plenty. "Is it my imagination, or did God already leave the table?" asks Michael, returning to the theme of theological doubt a few songs later in "John and Elvis are Dead", in which a friend wakes from a decades-long coma and enquires: "If Jesus Christ is alive and well, then how come John and Elvis are dead?" It is saved from facetiousness by its setting, a cross between Marvin Gaye's soft sensuality and the susurrus of "I'm Not in Love".

Two songs tackle the subject of suicide. Preceded by an answerphone voice explaining that "the god you wanted to contact is not available", the mellow R&B groove "Cars and Trains" counsels against "Taking your ass off the top of a building/ Throwing yourself under cars and trains/ Taking that pill that you know will kill you", while the piano ballad "My Mother Had a Brother" is closer to home with the story of an uncle, "over-sensitive and kind", who took his own life the day George was born. And indeed, reading between the lines of the closing track "Through", which I'm guessing was written in response to the reaction to his bust and subsequent outing, he's clearly a touch oversensitive to criticism himself. "Suddenly the audience is so cruel," he sings. "I think I'm through."

The impression of sensitivity and depth is marred, however, by the more thoughtless uptempo numbers, which pound along to a different agenda. "Flawless" promotes a notion of the enduring glamour of nightlife that even hardcore clubbers now recognise as empty and artificial, while "Freeek!" is a techno paean to cybersex so clichéd it employs the modem dial-up tone as part of the groove. The best of the disco numbers is "Shoot the Dog", largely because it's based on the Human League's "Love Action": again, hardly innovative.

This lack of musical development is the Achilles heel. The bits that don't sound like Older sound like "Fastlove", or even "Freedom 90". Perhaps he's settled for refining a style rather than breaking new ground? Certainly, his command of that style is assured, never more so than on "Round Here", an account of George's conception and upbringing that is surely the most fulsome tribute ever paid to Watford.

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