Okay, so he’s not really 25. But you just have to love George Michael.
In the quarter-century that’s passed since Michael and Andrew Ridgeley exploded onto global culture’s radar rocking teased tresses and Day-Glo gear as Wham!, popular music has been a million places and worn just as many faces. In that time Michael’s crystal clear, supple tenor has graced some iconic records, moments in the world’s sonic backdrop that transcend trends and media-manufactured limitations. To me, he’s one of the only pop superstars of his era who earned the title and consistently lived up to it. Beyond the leather jacket, the five-o’clock shadow and the supermodel-laced video clips – or even through all of the high jinks of his private life – his art was immaculate. Hell, in some cases the drama added to the fun of it all.
Released in the States Tuesday, the lavish, beautifully packaged “TwentyFive” chronicles the progression of a pop star and the genre that made him an icon, gathering three discs of unforgettable singles and beloved album tracks. Big hits from Wham! and his solo career are gathered here, as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Everything She Wants,” “Faith,” “Freedom! ’90,” “Careless Whisper,” “Fastlove,” the R&B chart topper “One More Try” and other favorites remain as infectious as they were the first time we all heard them. Some are complex and soulful and others are just ear candy, but all are undeniably timeless. Personally, I love it when he goes chic eventide homo on us, giving up glittery club grooves like “Outside,” “Freeek!” and the drop-dead gorgeous “Flawless (Go to the City)” that revel in unapologetic hedonism. Besides, anytime a singer can work the phrase “fucked-up piece of ass” into a song called “Flawless,” you just have to dig it.
There are, however, some glaring omissions. Most notably, the “Faith”-era hits “I Want Your Sex,” “Monkey” and “Kissing a Fool” are missing, which may piss off some diehard fans. On the other hand, they probably already own 1998’s “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael,” which does include those cuts. It’s likely a way for record companies to force the public into buying various albums and compilations to get all of the songs they love. (Remember the travesty that was Whitney Houston’s retrospective?) Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I can’t help myself. Thankfully, such missteps can be remedied with a few clicks on Itunes.
Still, “TwentyFive” pretty much renders “Ladies and Gentleman” obsolete because it includes a generous amount of material from 1999’s covers collection “Songs from the Last Century” and 2004’s “Patience.” Though the albums didn’t get much attention Stateside, they boast some fine vocal performances and an unheralded growth and maturity in the overall texture of Michael’s work. Interpretations of The Police’s “Roxanne” and Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” from “Songs” are ideal for the singer, while the bubbly hit single “Amazing” lifted from “Patience” was a welcome surprise for his U.S. fans. He also excels on “My Mother Had a Brother” and “American Angel,” two mellow movers from “Patience” reflecting on a gay uncle and Michael’s true love, respectively. If nothing else, one thing he and a lot of his Brit-pop contemporaries have is a mastery of capturing a melancholy mood. It’s as if they realize they are telling not only their stories, but the stories of the millions of listeners who’ve grown up with them.
For those devoted fans, there are six new tracks sprinkled throughout the album, including the delightful dance romp “An Easier Affair,” the sensual ballad “This is Not Real Love” (a duet with Mutya) and the laid back “Understand.” Stevie Wonder’s “As,” a 1999 collaboration with Mary J. Blige, is making its debut on CD in the States but isn’t really new: The song was reportedly slated for inclusion on Blige’s “Mary” album but didn’t make the cut. It still managed, however, to climb to a respectable No. 57 on the R&B chart. (My guess is that the thought of putting the newly out Michael on the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s record gave execs the jitters. But what do I know?) The new cuts are pleasant, if predictable offerings that aren’t overly engaging or offensive. No matter, as they will surely find places among his old favorites as time moves on.
With his first U.S. tour in more than a decade kicking off soon (me and my boys WILL be there, trust) and a recurring role on the hit ABC series “Eli Stone,” Michael is definitely reclaiming the place in the sun that’s rightfully his. Considering my friends and I were talking not too long ago about how we’d love for him to come back out with something new or tour, he couldn’t have reemerged soon enough. “TwentyFive” landed right on time; it’s the perfect offering for both long-time fans and young listeners who may be experiencing his legend for the first time.
Regardless, all I can say is welcome back, George. We’ve missed you.