George Michael hasn’t released a new studio album in a decade, and it seems fans yearning for one will need yet a little more patience. Michael’s new album Symphonica, out this week, is a document of his 2011-2012 tour in which he performed a mixture of covers, jazz standards and selected nuggets from his own back catalog with an orchestral backing. Michael’s voice sounds as good as ever, and the album has the sadly nostalgic element of being famed producer Phil Ramone’s final work before his untimely passing — but, unfortunately, Symphonica is a long, slow slog of a listen.
The jazz standards that Michael tackles — “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” and “Wild is the Wind” — end up sounding like well-sung, but otherwise average, lounge music. His smooth take on “Wild is the Wind” robs the song of its innate sense of drama (listen to David Bowie or Nina Simone vamp it up and there’s just no comparison). More interesting, generally, is his selection of pop covers. He mixes classics like “Roxanne” (which he turns into hopelessly dull elevator music) and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (one of the album’s better moments) with a nice smattering of lesser-known tracks. His take on Terence Trent D’arby’s nugget “Let Her Down Easy” is lovely, although not on par with the exquisite original. He does a nice version of the incisive “Going to a Town,” one of Rufus Wainwright’s most brilliant songs, but again his silky delivery neuters the emotional impact. A definite highpoint is “Idol,” Michael’s take on an obscure Elton John track from his 1976 album Blue Moves — here he arguably bests the original.
Michael peppers the set with some of his own compositions, and while again he proves to still be in fine voice the question remains (and it’s a question asked all too often with live albums in general): why would anybody listen to these recordings when the by-far-superior original versions remain readily available? “One More Try” is still a beautiful song, and George sings it well here, but while it’s one of the album’s better moments overall it lacks the fiery emotional punch of the original from the Faith album. “A Different Corner” is better — here his subtle performance is a welcome change from the somewhat overwrought original. That said, the loungifying of his potent “Praying for Time,” from Listen Without Prejudice, Volume I, is unforgivable.
It’s nice to have a new George Michael album, even if it’s not new material, and he strikes a nice balance in his song selection. Symphonica does have its moments of beauty and elegance. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, Michael’s understated vocals sap the emotion and life from these songs. Maybe it’s a better experience seeing the shows live, but on record Symphonica is in the same tepid territory as Rod Stewart’s much-disdained Great American Songbook series, or Seal’s vapid and over-produced collection of R&B covers, Soul. It’s a half-step above what you might hear in the world’s tackiest hotel lobby. George Michael is one of the great pop songwriters of the last 30 years, and perhaps he’s content to slowly mature into a Vegas-style lounge act with no modern relevance, but it’s a shame because, as he showed with his single “White Light” from the summer of 2012, he is still capable of writing and recording compelling original music. Here’s to hoping that his nostalgia trip is over and he gets back to doing what he does best.