George Michael’s first album in 10 years offers few surprises – as might be expected of a live offering, even if – unlike the pop he is best known for – it is recorded with a full orchestra. Documenting his 2010-11 tour, it’s co-produced by the late Phil Ramone, whose early experience working with Frank Sinatra comes in handy on the featherbed orchestral arrangements of “Through” and “A Different Corner”, as well as the languid cabaret jazz of “Cowboys And Angels”, a slinky blend of loping double bass, sparse piano chords and subtle shivers of strings.
The majority of the set is covers, ranging from the sumptuous piety of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” to swaggering big-band versions of “Feeling Good” and “My Baby Just Cares For Me”.
They show Michael does the swing thing with a much more natural grace than Robbie Williams. And rather than the kind of grating “Let’s face it, Robbie, you’re a little bit gay” bromance indulgences of Williams’ last album, here the latter song’s suggestive connotations are more coyly restricted to a wry eyebrow-twitch, Michael changing the line about Liberace to refer to “Ricky Martin’s smile”.
The arrangements are for the most part sensitively handled, with nice touches like the subtle oboe underscoring the poignant flush of shame in the opener “Through” (“All this cruelty and money instead of love/ People, have we no shame?”). The luxurious-upholstered reading of the Depression anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” does rather betray the song’s spirit, however. Several other song choices also reflect the singer’s political attitudes, including the guilty-liberal hand-wringing of “Praying For Time” (“These are the days of the empty hand/ We hold on to what we can”), an agnostic “John And Elvis Are Dead” set to small, pulsing waves of strings, and a thoughtful cover of Rufus Wainwright’s anti-American broadside “Going To A Town”.
By contrast, Elton John’s “Idol” seems a tad laborious, the tribute to an elder statesman of pop rather clumsily redirected towards its writer.
The most effective piece here is the most unexpected: a cover of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Let Her Down Easy” crooned with a rare tenderness and empathy.
Competently organised and confidently delivered, it’s an engaging set, but ultimately, like all live albums, essentially a souvenir. And the reliance on cover versions rather than the opportunity to unveil new material, as is customary, does nothing to scotch rumours that the singer has finally hung up his microphone for good.
When Michael’s website was replaced with a closed curtain last December, his people hurried to deny assumptions that this represented the end of his career, claiming that 2014 would be an exciting year musically for him. Since it’s hard to imagine Symphonica alone being the cause of widespread excitement, one can only surmise that the coming months will see his decade-long silence broken in a more conclusive manner. Can an album of new material, perhaps, be waiting in the wings?