He'll need more than faith this time

He's back, he's serious, and he's calling the tunes. Can George Michael pull it off again? Jim White reports

The opening shot of the video that accompanies George Michael's new single, "Jesus to a Child", is of a pile of dust standing in front of a kitchen chair, which is suspended, Dali-style, in mid-air. A large pendulum swings and knocks the top off the pile.

Thereafter the camera runs, slowly, over the prostrate figure of a naked man lying on a damp limestone pavement, then past ballet dancers in flesh- coloured leotards packaged into crates. Then it takes in a woman flourishing a Venetian ball mask as she wanders along a corridor. Finally it catches up with the singer himself, filmed from the neck up, looking doe-eyed and contemplative, not moving. You can't help feeling, before he even opens his mouth, that George Michael has a message here that he wishes to convey.

The last time we saw the man whose face once graced a million teenagers' bedroom walls was outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in July 1994. He had just lost a lengthy and expensive case seeking to extricate himself from his recording contract with Sony. It wasn't the money that worried him: he already had more of that than he knew what to do with, he said. He was furious because the company didn't trust him, didn't back him, didn't treat him like a meaningful artist. It was an argument that the judge - his mind swayed by the little note George handed him during the proceedings giving details of his current account balance - couldn't quite grasp. He found in favour of the multinational.

A year later, Sony, finally realising that George was serious when he said he would never record for them again, let him go, transferring him, as a football club might a player in dispute, for $40m to Virgin and, in America, a conglomerate led by David Geffen called Dreamworks.

After five years in frustrating, money-sapping, morale-murdering exile you might have expected George Michael to make a bit of a song and dance about his return (he is a man eminently capable of both). Daringly, perhaps, he has chosen to do neither. "Jesus to a Child" is a beautifully modulated, beautifully constructed, beautifully arranged song, delivered in that tortured falsetto of his. But it is also downbeat, maudlin, depressed. There is no hint on the video of the astonishing George hip-swivel that has dampened a million stadium seats across the globe. We don't even get to see his legs.

George has made it known, moreover, that it is a song inspired by the lingering death of his friend and confidant Anselmo Feleppa: "When you've been loved, when you know it holds such bliss/Then the lover that you've kissed/ Will comfort you when there's no hope inside/With your last breath you saved my soul/You smiled at me like Jesus to a child." In the light of that knowledge, lyrics like that are pretty tricky for a female fan base groomed on the jaunty boy-meets-girl material of his early days.

What we have, in short, is a vigorous projection of the image he has wanted to set for himself for years: thinker, feeler, a man who has put the rhythms and fripperies of disco long behind him. George Michael grown up, that's what he wants us to see.

Like a comedian who yearns to play Hamlet, George has long wanted to be taken seriously, to be granted a touch of Linford Christie-style respect. He didn't get off to a great start: his first band, Wham, were critically mocked at the time of their pre-eminence. Since any objective analysis would place both "Careless Whisper" and "What She Wants" among the 10 best pop songs of the Eighties, such a response was absurd. But critics are not objective. Their reaction was forged by the comical desperation with which George sought stardom, the manner in which he would do anything - pose topless, spend the day under a sun lamp, work with Andrew Ridgely - to shortcut his way to it.

His decision as a teenager in Hertfordshire to go for fame via the quickest route - by conquering the little girlie market - was to colour judgement about George for years: who, it appeared, was prepared to take seriously a man who popped a shuttlecock down his shorts before appearing on stage? Even when his album Faith sold 14 million copies and earned him pounds 15.8m in 1988 alone, the judgement was by no means acclamatory. Worse, George found that the fame he had sought so assiduously was no consolation for the critical cold-shoulder.

His follow-up to Faith, in 1989, came with a built-in plea in its title: Listen Without Prejudice. Some of us did, and thought it the best album of the decade. But others, particularly the accountants who ran his record company, were less than thrilled when it sold a mere seven million units (although it outsold Faith in Britain), particularly when George seemed reluctant to do anything to help it - to tour, for instance, or make sexy videos. They couldn't understand his reluctance. He was, after all, brilliant at that stuff, the best showman of his generation. With such mutual incomprehension, divorce was the only option.

Now that George is free to pursue his own line (and, as importantly, is hitched to an organisation prepared to let him do so), the big question is whether record-buyers will follow it. Five years is a long time to be away. Things have changed out there. Members of the Live Aid generation of which he was the greatest talent are now cast as laughable has-beens, and for the first time in his professional life George Michael is way out of kilter with the prevailing fashion. Compared to Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn or Jarvis Cocker, the big players of the mid-Nineties, George is too slick, too well-coiffured, too concerned with his looks. His style is all cappuccino, glossy magazines and well-tailored suits; theirs is all lager, fanzines and sports labels. He's a soul boy; they're scallies. He's a gent; they're lads.

You can't see him achieving the new Britpop bands' universal appeal, in which five-year-olds are as word-perfect at "Wonderwall" and "Common People" as their parents; or, galling for George, the way they have the critics lining up to volunteer for shoe-shining duties.

It would be mistaken, however, to suggest that since the world has managed so well without him there is no point in George Michael any more. A $40m transfer fee plus a $25m advance for two albums suggests that Virgin feels there is. And since it has turned such an attractive penny out of the Rolling Stones recently, it cannot be regarded as naive in the talent- backing department. Though he might no longer be a mass-market player, the company believes that there is a big niche for the singer in the same adult arena as the Stones, a confidence which nicely coincides with George's own vision of himself.

To succeed there - as Paul Weller's recent reinvention has proved - George will need his strongest set of material yet. Not that that will worry him; one thing George Michael has never been short of is a belief in his own ability to turn out a good tune. And those of us who have kept the faith for five years will not be surprised if he pulls off this, the biggest hurdle of his career.

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