Reviews

George Michael / Symphonica

George Michael / "Symphonica" deluxe edition

George Michael has this week released Symphonica, a live album from his 2011-2 tour that features orchestral / big band arrangements of many of his songs, alongside a generous selection of covers.

Although in recent years we’ve had some one-off singles (December Song, True Faith, White Light) an album of new studio material has not materialised. Indeed, remarkably, Michael has only released one ‘proper’ album in the last 18 years (2004’s Patience).

While fans continue to wait for his muse to return, it is at least refreshing to be able to talk about the man in relation to some new music rather than read about him in the tabloid press as they report deliciously on some unfortunate incident (self inflicted or otherwise).

So what can you expect from Symphonica? If you attended any of the shows then you’ll know what you are getting, and that is ‘grown-up’ professional crooner George Michael singing (beautifully) some his more thoughtful intimate songs alongside a collection of other people’s compositions. What you definitely do not get is the ‘poppy’ George that you may remember seeing on Top of the Pops so regularly in the mid-to-late eighties. Only the third track – A Different Corner – takes us back to that era and it is a disc highlight for that reason alone.

Praying For Time, the lead single from Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1  follows ADC and Michael messes around with it a little bit, playing with the melody and tweaking the odd lyric. It’s a reminder of his change of direction in 1990 but it has always been a song to admire than really love.

GM does pick his covers well and Terence Trent D’Arby‘s Let Her Down Easy is a superbly crafted ballad that deserved to be a far bigger hit than it was back in 1993. Nice to see it get some recognition here and George plays it fairly straight with a simple piano accompaniment and some modest strings accentuating the melody and lyrics.

Six tracks in and you do start to feel like Symphonica could do with picking up the pace a bit. Cue to a bombastic arrangement of Feeling Good which blows off a few cobwebs.

The track selection is a major disappointment. With only one track each from 1996’s Older and 1987’s blockbuster Faith and NOTHING from Wham!’s Make It Big George Michael continues to please himself rather than the fans. Personally, I want to hear him sing songs like Careless Whisper and Spinning The Wheel rather than the likes of Roxanne and My Baby Just Cares For Me, and while we are on the subject, why, oh why, isn’t Kissing A Fool here? That track is surely made for this kind of treatment.

Even putting aside the fact that GM ignores enormous chunks of his own back catalogue, his use of the orchestra in truth isn’t very creative or particularly interesting. You are constantly waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under you with some surprise arrangement or unexpected diversion, but it never happens. Sting‘s similarly orchestral Symphonicities album is much more dynamic, with thoughtful reworkings. In fact you can do a direct comparison since Roxanne appears on both records. Sting’s version oozes moody cinematic undercurrents while George’s is a more languid, smokey jazz version – not without its charms but just a bit more predictable.

Phil Ramone produced these live recordings, his last major project before his death. He had collaborated with Michael on the 1999 studio covers album Songs From The Last Century. No less than six tracks from that record appear on the 17-track version Blu-ray version of Symphonica, far more than any other record George Michael has has been involved with.

Symphonica is a highly polished, virtually note-perfect recording that rarely breaks into a sweat. George is well within his comfort zone (preferring to sing other people’s songs) and his voice is still a tremendous instrument. Unfortunately, the album never really challenges or excites and ultimately feels like more fun for George Michael than it is for the listener. Symphonica tells us that he’s grown up and moved on from the froth of Wham! and the sweat of Faith, but hey, isn’t that the George Michael many of us like best?

Symphonica is out now.


Deluxe Edition

symphonica_pureaudio

Pure Audio Blu-ray Audio (no video)


Track listing

  1. Through
  2. My Baby Just Cares For Me
  3. A Different Corner
  4. Praying For Time
  5. Let Her Down Easy
  6. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
  7. Feeling Good
  8. John And Elvis Are Dead
  9. Roxanne*
  10. One More Try
  11. Going To A Town*
  12. Cowboys and Angels
  13. Idol
  14. Brother Can You Spare A Dime
  15. You Have Been Loved*
  16. Wild Is The Wind
  17. You’ve Changed

*bonus tracks on deluxe and blu-ray audio

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12 responses to George Michael / Symphonica

  1. Andy says:

    I agree completely with this review. I find the over-doing of the same songs to be stale. New, new, new is what pleases fans most.

  2. bob says:

    Thanks for that great review Paul. I think I will give this one a miss and keep on waiting for the CD of new songs, if it ever comes.

  3. Enrico G. says:

    You’re right, Paul, this record is truly disappointing for old time fans (like me). I think that the genius has lost his magical hat…

  4. Stefano says:

    Rather dull, didn’t inspire me a lot, I guess. Really a pity, because I was so looking forward to it. So I kinda agree with you Paul (unfortunately).

  5. Lon Pinkerton says:

    I think George has missed an opportunity to be honest with this release.

    I attended a live show in 2012 in Birmingham that included a mighty version of “Waiting For That Day” which is not included here and is sadly missing. Also, in the artwork of the Deluxe edition there is a photo including a backdrop of Amy Winehouse and the version of “Love Is A Losing Game” from the earlier shows of the “Symphonica” tour is also missing from here.

    My personal favourite George Michael songs “Cowboys and Angels” and “A Different Corner” are worth the admission price alone, along with a note perfect rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Versions of “Safe” and “Kissing A Fool” which were also performed during some shows would have been worth including, along with the new song “Where I Hope You Are”.

    There are too many cuts also shared form 1999’s “Songs From The Last Century”, which although a well produced album in it’s own right do not need repeating here. As I said, a missed opportunity.

    Roll on 2015 and the next studio release (fingers crossed) . . . hopefully including some of George’s unreleased gems such as “This Kind of Love” and “One Day I’ll Know”.

  6. Michel says:

    yaaaawnnnn…. zzzzz

  7. Jan Arne Hansen says:

    I don’t share your dissapointment. Actually I am quite fond of this release. It shows Mr. Michael from side we know he has, a side he masters, and I do find the arrangements in combination with his voice to be quite good. Yeah, no big surprises in the arrangements, and the track list could possibly have been more hit orientated, but that was never the idea behind this project. Look to “Live in London” (2009) for that.

  8. Michael Bird says:

    I would rather an artist be true to themselves than cloying to one’s fans. Fans tend to be too nostalgic for the moment they first encounter an artist and honestly I’ve heard those Wham and Faith tunes too many times. I don’t particularly need to relive the past. I’d love to hear a new record but I think we all know GM’s dealing with some fairly huge health issues. Re-exploring the past with reverence and adding grandeur to some of the older songs seems like a decent excuse to get out and sing. And from an arranger’s point of view, most of the hits aren’t musical enough to be fleshed out by a symphony as they are usually overly-dependent on rhythmic elements.

  9. Daran says:

    It’s a really good release. I believed that it had enough substance to be a major release in it’s own right before it was released, and listening to it confirms that. New songs not heard before, some great minor changes to the already heard before arrangements, a good quality recording all combined with the excellent deluxe edition packaging does not disappoint me in any way.

    Minus points? Well not unexpectedly after all the major health issues suffered including having a tracheotomy (that can’t be good for a singer), his voice has been better IMO, and the album does suffer from not knowing if it want’s to be a live album or Songs From The Last Century part 2. This is due to the mix of crowd sounds on some songs and not in other places you’d expect them to be being a bit odd. It would have been great to have had Amy Winehouse’s Love is A Losing Game included instead of one of the SFTLC covers – that is a missed opportunity.

    But a solid 4 out of 5.

  10. Michael Bushell says:

    I feel GM reached a peak with Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 (we never got vol.2 did we?). I had hoped that this new release could be an interesting departure, but I’ll probably be searching it out in a bargain bin some time in the future.

    The best example of revisiting your old catalogue in a different way and playing the covers game in recent years has been the Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back/New Blood releases. Some of that stuff was genuinely exciting (and led me to buy CDs of some of the originals of tracks that were covered).

  11. NeilKelly says:

    LIstening to it now as i type! Very good album great voice but as others have mentioned far too much missing. Should’ve just been a double album forget all this Deluxe edition nonsense with 17 tracks (fits on 1 disc still) rather than 14. Should’ve been more like 25-30 tracks. At least giving fans something truly worthwhile with many of the hits added on. Never saw the tour did he do ‘Everything she wants’? Should’ve done. Also ‘The edge of heaven’ and ‘Where did your heart go’? would’ve worked well surely in this setting. 18 years with no proper new album is a waste of that talent and that stunning voice. Lazyness i call it

  12. Todd R. says:

    Yogs yogs yogs. Yes, it’s always about him, if it’s music or if it’s craving attention (here, let me get high and wreck my car…). And that’s fine – he’s surrounded by yes people, so that’s what he’s going to get.
    I’ve always loved GM’s songwriting, regardless of the packaging it came in (WHAM! or otherwise). perhaps the real problem here is that he just isn’t writing songs like he used to – not quality mind you, but quantity. Only one album in 18 years (check) a few singles (and one was a cover), a Christmas song (check), etc etc….Maybe that’s the issue that needs fixed here. I’m thrilled that he was adventurous enough to take on such a tour, but it seems like just “another” thing with no new songs (really) and such a finite selection (the better songs were the ones not singles on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1) etc. Giving those new exposure (as mentioned above) would have been a great revelation methinks.

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