This is all part of the back-to-basics mission in the title: “This is what I do,” George is telling us—write catchy pop songs, make statements, harvest interesting ideas from the fringes, and express the one-of-a-kind personality that the world fell for with “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” in 1982. What he doesn’t do, this implies, is make trend-courting electro-house, as he did in the 1990s, not to mention shoot heroin, rant on reality TV shows, or constrain and threaten people in motel rooms.
“I’m glad I’m not crazy like I used to be,” he intimates on “Any Road.” And I am, too. A soberly wise, lively, musically engaging Boy George in the 21st century, even if he could use some editing? What an unexpected relief, and what pleasant company.
While George’s way of bidding for redemption is to nod back to his subculturalist credentials, Michael’s is to follow a dominant, mainstream script—that of the middle-aged pop star doing standards with an orchestra, in the manner of celebrities a generation ahead of him such as Rod Stewart. With his title, Symphonica, Michael, whose wayward years were not quite so devastating, isn’t reclaiming a lost identity—or he might have called it Danceteria—but offering to extend himself somewhere tonier, with a hint of exotica.
He made a stab at that in 1999 with the album Songs From the Last Century, one of his least popular records. This time it’s also a faux live album, another throwback (to 1970s-era industry conventions)—these are concert recordings from his 2011 Symphonica tour in which big parts have been redone partially or wholly in studio, permitting a sheen of perfection along with the roar of the crowd (see? people love it!), two goals that don’t naturally go together. But as co-produced by Michael and the late studio legend Phil Ramone, it carries off that hybrid with all the verisimilitude one could ask for, and I have no honest objection.
Only a third of these numbers, drawn from the ’99 album, are the kinds of standards that usually populate this sort of exercise. Let’s dispense with those: They’re dispensable. Michael sings them with some brio (particularly “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”), but in these unremarkable orchestrations all they do is make me wish I were hearing other people’s past, superior takes. In spots Michael comes off as a louche Tom Jones-style swinger, which seems not mature but decrepit. His embarrassing overarticulation of the “yankee doodle de-dum” line in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, for instance, has become a gnawing earworm for me.
Thankfully, most of the rest are not American Songbook standards but George Michael standards—ballads from his previous solo work, given the orchestral treatment. Where Boy George wrote new songs about his struggles, Michael has curated a series of selections (“Through,” “A Different Corner,” “Praying for Time,” “One More Try”) that outline his journey, and the rearrangements pluck them out of time in a way I find quite moving.
Oddly they often remind me of the recent work of Mark Eitzel, the singer from indie-rock band American Music Club who, solo, conveys a sad-clown, lounge-singer persona in part to evoke the incongruities of queer middle-aged sadness in the midst of a more macho-cool music scene.
That parallel is strongest on what I take as Symphonica’s centerpiece, a cover of the lesser-known Elton John song “Idol” from 1976’s Blue Moods, which paints a “tight-assed … highly prized in the wallet size/ Number-one crush in a schoolgirl’s eyes” star who ends up at “the very bottom.” Bernie Taupin’s idiosyncratic language enriches the crooner stance and makes for a very poignant, frank self-portrait from Michael.
In this way Symphonica makes a convincing case for Michael as a fine pop voice you want to hear more from, just as Boy George’s album does for him. The mea culpa rites have their boring sides, but they clear the way for potentially more vigorous steps to come: George has said he’s already recording new music with some old Culture Club colleagues, while Michael’s reported that his release from prison (for driving, and crashing, stoned in 2010) and sobriety have led to a burst of new songwriting—hopefully some of it with the dancier beats at which he’s excelled.
I don’t expect this will make either George essential artists ever again, but if these two can glide into dignified third acts after so much time stuck in messy intermissions, it’s a victory for also-rans, those who give their all to some necessary stage in the zeitgeist and then too often are left sputtering on fumes. There would be a grace to that, a note of debts balanced and better karma for all of pop culture’s chameleons, whether onstage or out here in the spectators’ seats.