(George Michael’s) Patience Has Its Own Rewards
I don’t know why I do it, but—while listening to George Michael’s latest CD Patience for what is probably the fourth time—I decided to see how the people at AMG reviewed it. The piece was a bit longer than the usual AMG review, and straightaway I started to wonder whether the writer, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, had a bug in his ear or something like that. He complained about GM wanting to be taken seriously as an artist rather than be regarded as just a pop star. Then he said all the songs on recording were too long. Then he … blah, blah, blah. I guess I was predisposed to disagree with him because I have taken GM seriously as an artist since 1991, when my friend Garth’s then-girlfriend Amor played Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 for me one afternoon. She lent me the CD, which I must have kept for at least a couple of weeks, because I remember listening to it a lot. I especially got into “Cowboys and Angels,” “Waiting for That Day,” and the hauntingly beautiful anti-war song “Mother’s Pride.” As cheesy as they might seem (or sound), the most climactic words from the latter still resonate with me:
And all the husbands, all the sons, all the lovers gone
They make no difference
No difference in the end
Still hear the women say your daddy died a hero
In the name of God and man
A few months later, I moved to New York for graduate school, and, finally free to spend after saving all summer for the move, I bought the album as well as Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, the album that contains “They Won’t Go When I Go,” which Michael had covered. GM’s version is quite good if you’ve never heard the original. After you hear the original you might, like me, start to think that GM deserved points for picking a great song and doing a better than competent job with it.
Then I began what was the exceptionally long wait for the next release, 1996’s Older. When I first heard it that summer, I was hardly prepared for it. In the sleeve notes, he expresses thanks to Antonio Carlos Jobim, and even the least harmonically sensitive listener might pick up on what GM learned from listening to Jobim. The influence is most evident on what most often seems the standout track on the recording to me: “To Be Forgiven.” And if his listening to Jobim wasn’t enough, he had to amplify that by going back to one of the original hazy harmonists. Check out the flute figure in the intro: a chromatic descent and ascent that students of mine have always immediately identified as coming from the opening of Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune. It might seem pretentious, but it actually works in the song. And the tune that follows that one, “Move On,” which helped me through a breakup, even has GM multitracking himself so as to sound like a band tuning up to play before an audience. That tune has to share second place with “Fastlove,” “Older,” and “Spinning the Wheel.” All three have things to recommend them—the groove and the deft layering of voices in the first, the restrained anger and resignation of the second, and the chastisingly threatening tone that gives way to pleading on the third—and the entire recording is washed in the most sumptuous reverb.
After that CD came another long hiatus. There were releases during that time, most notably Songs from the Last Century, but the latest one is the first one consisting of new material since 1996. After less than a week with it, I’m not yet ready to declare it to be the kind of step forward that its predecessor was. But I can say that I do love this record. That same dreamy reverb is back and used to great effect on the ballads, especially “John and Elvis Are Dead.” And even though the recording sounds more subdued than previous efforts, it’s more sonically adventurous without being cloying than anything else he’s done. Check out the arrangement and the various sampled sounds on “Cars and Trains.” It’s clear that, however long he spent working on the sound of the recording, he used that time well. Even his uptempo disco/dance music tracks, the single “Amazing,” “Flawless (Go to the City),” and “American Angel” work really well, at least for me. And in “My Mother Had a Brother” he has a tearjerker that rises to the level of “Mother’s Pride.” And the sparseness of the arrangement up to the words “the sun came out” is no preparation for the subtly mixed guitars, percussion and vintage synths that flesh things out from there on out. And by the end, it’s hard to dispute that the man is clearly skilled in constructing ballads.
I’m not sure why the things that bothered Erlewine hit him that way. Maybe our tastes diverge at too many points. I haven’t generally agreed with the reviews of his I’ve read, but since AMG provides no way to search by reviewer (why would they?), I can’t point toward any specifics now. It’s too bad. Hopefully there aren’t too many people who decide not to buy something merely because they read one bad review. Thank goodness I’m not one of them (and that I already had the CD in the player when I did read one).