George Michael has never been prolific – three original albums and a Greatest Hits collection since the demise of Wham – but his work has
always had the feel of quality about it. He enjoys the privileged position of carrying with him a loyal following who wait impatiently for each new release. All of which leads one to hope that his new album of covers is intended as more than a cynical attempt to exploit the current taste for Millennium-inspired roundups of the best of the last century. His tender, almost too reverent, treatment of the songs here suggests a genuine and deep affection for the music. Unfortunately, in most cases, the marriage of interpreter and material is an uncomfortable one.
Michael’s voice is a lovely instrument – but it is avowedly not a ‘classic pop’ voice anymore than it is a true rock one. As a singer – and writer – of contemporary pop he has few peers. Robbie and Ricky might have the showmanship and the sex appeal, but George has enough of both and more raw talent than either. And Elton never looked that good in leather. For all his restraint and occasional hauteur as a performer, Michael undoubtedly has soul in the broadest sense – what he is not is a swinger or balladeer in the Sinatra/Cole mode. While he shares their ability to inhabit a lyric, his post-Wham work is highly introspective. Stripped of its accompanying video, even Outside remains a somewhat coded paean to the joys of sexual honesty. Many of his songs are about the failure to connect fully with oneself or others. Emotional openness is not, seemingly, his natural state and yet it is precisely this – combined with the ability to tell a story – which is essential if a performer is to do justice to words by the likes of Mercer or Hart.
Few attempts by contemporary singers to interpret the material of their predecessors have succeeded – and none have surpassed – the originals. If artists of Michael’s fame wish to indulge themselves in this way then they at least owe it to the rest of us to try and come up with something
new. Carly Simon’s Torch and Harry Nilsson’s A Little Touch of Schmilsson In The Night work precisely because they marry an awareness of tradition with a contemporary sensibility which respects the material but finds layers of emotion accessible to a modern audience. Linda Ronstadt’s albums with Nelson Riddle (and Simon’s post-Torch forays into standards) fail because they are slavish attempts at aping a style which is foreign to the artists concerned. Interestingly, both Nilsson and Simon lack voices of great technical expertise and are, perhaps, forced to call more deeply on their interpretative skills when confronted by the deceptively challenging melodies of an Ellington, Rodgers or Arlen.
Michael, on the other hand, simply cloaks himself in the sound of another era while failing to either embody or comment on it. His bizarre (and possibly unconscious) mirroring of Billie Holiday’s
phrasing on "You’ve Changed" only serves to increase the suspicion that his desire to make the album sprang from admiration rather than a wish to take the material in any particular or personal direction. Nothing wrong with admiration, of course, but it is a little arrogant to expect others to be interested in retreads of music delivered far better elsewhere simply because he likes the songs. There are moments of individuality – Michael’s wry replacement of Lana Turner’s with Ricky
Martin’s smile on "My Baby Just Cares For Me" prompts a grin. Unfortunately the effect is rather undermined by a strange, coy delivery which sounds uncomfortably like Blossom Dearie. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is beautifully sung but so like Roberta Flack’s definitive recording as to be irrelevant. He is more adventurous with the newer songs but the less said about his cocktail lounge approach to The Police’s "Roxanne" the better.
The most successful track is Mercer’s "I Remember You" where the singer is accompanied only by a harp. Unencumbered by the lush string arrangements which smother much of the album, Michael suddenly engages with his material and seems to offer something genuinely personal. The
interpretation is on a par with his earlier cover of Mike Reid and Adam Shamblin’s "I Can’t Make You Love Me" in the way it pierces the kernel of emotion at the song’s core with both tenderness and restraint.
A meandering "Wild Is The Wind" and a gently swinging "Where or When" are pleasant but unexceptional. The inclusion of the vocal-less backing track for "It’s Alright With Me" is an irrelevancy. Why bother? One wonders whether Michael intended the song to refer to a certain LA
cop but lost his nerve in the light of recent legal proceedings. Whatever the truth, it might have proved a more amusing rumination on his current status as the World’s Most Famous Gay Man than a strained big band take on Doris Day’s "Secret Love."
Songs From The Last Century feels dashed off and ill-considered and it’s a shame since Michael clearly loves these songs. It is a noble failure and will be of interest only to ardent fans – and even they will probably abandon it in favour of Older or Listen Without Prejudice after a couple of spins.
– Mark Jennett