If loving George Michael’s amazing voice is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.
By all rationality, I should hate this album, but I just don’t. If you want to read a fair, accurate and negative review of Symphonica, George Michael’s album composed of lushly arranged compositions played with a group of musicians (an orchestra?), go read Robin’s much less generous account at Deliberate Obfuscation.
I won’t argue with her. She’s right. This album is a ridiculous, self-indulgent, pompous, self-pitying, over-dramatic, cringeworthy spectacle by a man with a penchant for cruising for anonymous sex and a record of driving while stoned – several times. In 2013, he suffered a head injury when he fell out of his own car on a highway in Britain. Yet he expresses bewilderment:
I guess it’s tough, I guess I’m older
And everything must change
But all this cruelty and money instead of love
People, have we no shame?
Indeed, George, have we no shame? Apparently, “we” have no shame. None whatsoever.
Despite it all, I’ve been a fan of George Michael since the days of Wham. I can’t explain it. Maybe I had a thing for stubble in the mid-80s – I’m also a big fan of Don Johnson, who played Sonny Crockett in those days.
This album offers a few true gems. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is a soaring version of the song that Roberta Flack owns. Michael’s version is somehow bigger, and shows off his impressive range, from rumbling lows to highs that shift on the winds at that altitude. His version doesn’t supplant Flack’s, but it stands right there with it.
“Brother Can You Spare a Dime” is a reintroduction of a truly great American classic song from the Depression era, made famous by Al Jolson and Bing Crosby. It laments the fate of a generation suffering from economic turbulence not of their making. I hope that the presumably very-well-heeled crowds in the halls where this album was recorded caught its message of empathy for the poor.
Yes, this album is recorded live, though I’m not entirely sure why. At one point, he has to “shush” the audience, and like the ill-mannered apes that show up at most concerts, even then a few buckle to their strange compulsion to whoop at wrong moments. (To be fair, this incident happens on the most laughable song of the album, which “features” the absolute worst harpist I have ever heard – I honestly believe I could do better wearing a pair of boxing gloves if given two days to practice.)
An earlier album by George Michael was entitled “Listen Without Prejudice”, but I don’t think that is possible. Even the normally gentle and forgiving Robin opens her review with the flat statement that she doesn’t care for him. I started my own piece with a statement that I don’t wanna be right. George Michael provokes prejudice because he is George Michael.
George Michael is more than just the voice on this album. He is more than an icon. He is several symbols – each eclipsing the others in separate observers.
In Robin’s review, she talks about a wreck of a man lacking all self-discipline. She’s entirely correct, and her recounting of his failures as a human being are a mere skimming of the surface. When she rolls her eyes at his dramatic delivery of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, she’s absolutely entitled. She calls him schmaltzy and over-the-top, and I cannot say that she’s wrong. He’s a symbol of all that.
If I were a member of MADD, I would be apoplectic that this multiply-caught altered driver is getting any attention whatsoever. I get that. He’s a symbol of someone willing to risk the lives of others by driving while wasted.
For many hetero males, myself included, his gayness is the biggest reaction point. For a lot of such folk, that’s the point of departure. Not only for people like Fred Phelps, but probably for a lot of generally tolerant people out there. He wears it on his sleeve – why must he wear it on his sleeve? Now, an album of George Michael playing show-tunes?? Aaccckkk! He’s a symbol of in-your-face gayness.
And I guess that is the source of my own prejudice in his favor. There’s a part of me that reacts exactly like those generally-tolerant people who just don’t want to have to face up to his gayness. Maybe it’s a bit of atonement for my own inner homophobe that I cut some slack for the guy who is so fabulous that his liner notes on this album don’t include lyrics, just more pictures of George, George, George.
And, really, his voice is absolutely amazing.
I dare you to listen without prejudice. I can’t, and I bet you can’t.
Next up, Blak and Blu, by Gary Clark, Jr.