George Michael, Symphonica, album review: He knew we were waiting
It’s an engaging set, but like all live albums, essentially a souvenir
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?
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food