There’s a certain sadness surrounding George “Yog” Michael’s first live album Symphonica. It’s not just that the material – a mix of classy covers n’ originals – is predominantly reflective or downbeat in tone as much as the circumstances in which it arrives. Back in 1998 George’s “Extra-curricular” shenanigans could be brilliantly shrugged off as mere afternoon delight merriment via “Outside”‘s amusing video of cops dancing in front of a discorama urinal, but “Mr. Michaels” life had taken a more sombre route of late. In 2007 he was found “Unfit for driving” and banned for two years. Three years later, under similar circumstances, he drove his car through a Snappy Snaps shop window (some wag later spraypainted “WHAM!” across a nearby wall) and was sentenced to eight weeks in prison. After being released from the aptly-titled ‘Highpoint Jail’ George wisely vowed to “Start again”. Sadly it wouldn’t prove so easy. In 2011 he suffered a bout of pneumonia which left him in a coma and then just last year there was a disturbing motorway incident where George was found in a heap on the motorway. The eyewitness chillingly recalled, “I looked back and there was a body lying in the road… there was blood everywhere”.
Thus Symphonica isn’t just “A live album”. There’s barely trace of the enormo-hits. Its heavy heart more burdened by melancholia and mea culpa with George mostly favouring a melodramatic narrative of desperation and redemption. The “You can’t sack me ‘cos I QUIT!” throwdown of “Through” makes for a spellbinding entrance. An operatic ensemble of “Cruel audiences”, “Cheap gilded cages” and “The truth” spin around cherubic harps and soothing violins toward a towering inferno crescendo. “These chains / I know they are of my making” Michael laments, eyes to heaven, before concluding, “Oh God / I’m think I’m through”. A passionate, Piaf-level entrance… yet bafflingly followed by the cabaret karaoke of “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. “Happy Saturday! Let’s see your hands!” demands our compère like it’s a Vegas supper club with Michael almost tap dancing his way to a jazz-hands “Boom-ba-boom…YEAH!” finale. A surreal sidestep and one jarring juxtaposition.
Symphonica certainly offers a heady, luxurious soirée, proving genuinely moving in parts, but it’s also quite exhausting and yes, occasionally bewildering. It’s been a decade since George’s last proper album Patience (!) and this release may prove frustratingly familiar for fans. All but three tracks (all covers) are available elsewhere in mostly ‘spot the difference’ versions with half of the ten covers jumping the fence from his similarly Phil Ramone produced album Songs from the Last Century. “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”, a tale of friends reunited under foreign skies is again poignant despite the swanky “The Biz they call Show” outro. “Wild is the Wind” is hypnotic, stately and regal – “With your kiss my life begins” – whilst Billie Holiday’s tearsoaked “You’ve Changed” finds false promises of love haunting the smoky basements of the brokenhearted. George’s ‘Sinatra in the wee hours’ remodeling of “Roxanne” still fails to turn it on though despite his amusing insistence on retaining Sting’s faux Jamaican patois, “Since I knew ya / I wouldn’t talk down to ya“. You’ll still wanna holler “ROXANNNNNE” whilst jumping off a Marshall in slow-motion. Michael’s take on Ewan MacColl’s evergreen “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” remains a thing of beauty though. He knows how to play this song. Tenderly sheltering “The trembling heart of a captive bird” before lifting it up to the heavens and letting it fly. “Your face, your face, your faaaace”. Consider yourselves warned, grown men gonna weep.
The other covers are uniformly elegant if not always electrifying but all are elevated by Michael’s incredible voice. Nobody needs another version of “Feeling Good” but George tears it up with pomp and starpower, ripping the roof off before a charismatic quip, “It’s too much to expect a white man to do it… like Nina.” There are some less familiar choices. Elton John’s 1978 song “Idol” isn’t Reg’s crowning glory but works within Symphonica’s narrative. A rise and fall parable about a “Tight-assed” ’50s idol and the cut-throat transience of fame, “They made him and they’ll waste him”. A word from the wise with a sting in its tale, “I liked the way his music sounded before”. Former challenger to the throne Terence Trent D’arby gets his “Let Her Down Easy” rescued from the ashes of time. Though no improvement over the charming original its sweet piano sway shines with “Strawberry eyes”, “Butterscotch glow” and a “Crayon world of paper clouds”. Rufus Wainwright’s 2007 single “Going to a Town” gives George something more to wrestle with. A condemnation of grim ‘Bush-era’ America it seethes with disillusionment and betrayal. “Do you really think you’ll go to hell for having loved?”. One of the album’s centrepoints its ‘blood on the flag’ despondency simmers in the dark.
It’s to his credit as a songwriter though that you’ll leave Symphonica remembering less the covers and more of Michael’s material. “Praying for Time” gets a noticeable adrenalin boost. The lush Lennon-esque melody marches with fresh bite and its ‘end of days’ sermon sounding beyond salvation, almost apocalyptic, “It’s hard to love / Jesus there’s so much to hate”. Patience‘s smartest song “John And Elvis Are Dead” similarly acts as a Marvin Gaye cry of “What’s Going On?”. An existential conundrum set to a graceful, lullaby waltz “If Jesus Christ is going to save us….how come peace, love and Elvis are dead?”. It’s sophisticated, strange pop though Michael raids his enviable “Bag o’ hits” sparingly. The gentle heartbeat of “A Different Corner” is an echo of simpler times… bouffant mullets and oversized woolly jumpers in soft focus. Poetic and romantic, its tender optimism flickering with crystalline sparkle. “One More Try” is better still. It hugs the soul like Elvis at Graceland singing gospel songs around the piano at 3 a.m. But it’s his achingly sad “You Have Been Loved” that truly reminds you why George is one of pop’s most treasured songwriters. A poetic, once heard, never forgotten prayer for lovers and loss. Dedicated to his late mother Lesley and Anselmo Feleppa it’s quietly devastating. When it serenely waves its last goodbye, “Don’t think that God is dead / Take care my love, he said / You have been loved” it’s breathtaking and heartbreaking. As it fades the crowd rattle their jewellery accordingly but George is silent.
Symphonica is, on many levels, somewhat unnecessary. A decade since George Michael’s last album of original material and following another greatest hits (2006’s Twenty Five) fans aren’t exactly clamouring for a live album padded with familiar covers. Yet Symphonica proves quite compelling. Though after a long and winding road of madness n’ sadness one now hopes Michael will again be inspired to create something new and original and see recent troubles fade into the rear view mirror. Time perhaps to recall that old WHAM! T-shirt slogan, “CHOOSE LIFE!”…. and find a reliable chauffeur, obviously.