November 30, 2023

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George Michael: Older (Super Deluxe) Album Review

Any reckoning with age brings with it intimations of mortality, and the pall of death hangs heavy over Older. “You Have Been Loved,” which Michael has called his favorite on the album, depicts a Catholic woman standing at the grave of her son, struggling with her faith. Again, the shadow subject is Anselmo—the senselessness of his loss, Michael’s own attempts to contend with his desolation. The lyrics are so wrenching and plainspoken, they scrape lows that are shocking for a pop song—“I’ve no daughters/I’ve no sons/Guess I’m the only one living in my life”—but the song rests on a redemptive note. “‘Take care, my love,’ she said/‘Don’t think that God is dead.’” If “Jesus to a Child” was the farewell—“The love we would have made/I’ll make it for two”—“You Have Been Loved” is the absolution. Few pop songs about the power of love leave such a cold shadow.

The deluxe package, which could swallow a living room floor when unfolded, unearths some genuine gold. Most notably for fans, EP-only and B-side tracks like the aching “Safe,” which suggested Michael was a Massive Attack fan, and the simmering, midtempo “You Know That I Want To” find a home outside of George Michael forums and unauthorized YouTube uploads for the first time. Michael’s own standards hamstrung his output, but the flip side of that precision means the few cast offs in his discography are bewilderingly perfect and finished-sounding.

The collected remixes add to the story of Michael as a quiet force in dance music even as he became more closely associated with dusky balladry. The “A/C Summer Remix” of “FastLove,” which features sultry sax tootling from Wham! collaborator and ’8os sax-cheese king Andy Hamilton, is welcome. But the nine-minute extended workout of “FastLove Pt. 2” is a revelation, a sparkling night highway of vocoder, arpeggiator runs, and bubbly synth pads.

There are some polite, restrained live versions of hits—“Freedom ’90,” retitled “Freedom ’94” here, shows none of the grit or fire of the studio original, even if Michael is in predictably fine voice. The same goes for a gospel choir-boosted rendition of “One More Try”: The vocal take captured on Faith remains Michael’s high point as a singer, a miracle of pristine tone and abandon. Michael’s perfectionism meant he was reliably excellent on stage, but spontaneity was never his strong point. He has always sounded most at home in the studio, where he could stone-cut to his painstaking and agonizing heart’s content.

Older’s commercial reception was muted, perhaps befitting an album that dealt with such weighty themes and held itself at such a cool remove from the pop marketplace. “Fastlove” peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100, “Jesus to a Child” at No. 7, and that was more or less it for Michael, at least in America. On the fateful night of April 7, 1998, Michael would take a break from work to walk in Beverly Hills’ Will Rogers Memorial Park. A man named Marcelo Rodriguez approached Michael in a public restroom. Unbeknownst to Michael, Rodriguez was an undercover police officer on “potty patrol”—the properly humiliating name given to the ludicrous task of patrolling public restrooms for sexual activity. After he left the restroom, Michael found himself arrested for “lewd behavior.” He passed the time in his holding cell browsing a copy of the National Enquirer, brooding over the certainty that next week’s cover would carry his own face.

Michael handled the incident with unparalleled grace, appearing on multiple talk shows to discuss it. He expressed embarrassment over the incident but emphasized, over and over again, that he felt no shame. The secret was “out,” now: He no longer was obliged to maintain the delicate fiction. But for anyone with a clue, he had revealed himself to the world already, or at least to whoever was smart enough to listen, on his own terms.

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George Michael: Older

George Michael: Older (Super Deluxe)

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