Surprisingly Enjoyable New Albums From George Michael and Boy George

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 20 2014 7:08 PM

You Come and Go, You Come and Go …

Surprisingly enjoyable new albums from George Michael and Boy George

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Carl Wilson is a Slate culture critic



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge


The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.