April 06, 2008

Album Review: George Michael is Back with Twenty Five

George Michael has garnered more notoriety for his personal life than for his music in recent years, yet despite the headlines he remains an exceptional artist, his voice among the purest in the modern pop era. Twenty Five, a new compilation of hits and newer tracks, serves as a sufficient, albeit not comprehensive, sampler of the versatility and sophistication that underscore his talent.

Released on the heels of a much-anticipated North American tour announcement, the set reflects all phases of a career spanning a quarter century, hence the album title. Early hits with Wham! mix among solo works and various duets. Six tracks previously unreleased in North America – the best of which is a duet with Mary J. Blige on the Stevie Wonder classic, “As” – round out the considerable 29-song tracklisting.

In highlighting all stages of George Michael’s career thus far, the cumulative impression is one of a gifted artist often overshadowed and underrated by his enigmatic image. Reconsidering the context of their respective eras and original albums, though, several of these songs, particularly “A Different Corner” and “One More Try,” reveal thematic depth and maturity seldom expressed by his pop contemporaries (Prince being the most obvious exception). As evidenced by later introspective ballads like “Jesus To A Child,” “Older,” and “John And Elvis Are Dead,” Michael’s youthful sophistication evolved over time to yield songs of even more refinement and distinction.

Of course, not all of Michael’s work bears such lyrical contemplation or musical nuance; nor does it always require them. “Too Funky” and “Faith,” for instance, bask in their licentious glory, drawing more on raw emotion and groove than on concentrated songwriting. “Everything She Wants” still sounds modern and hip with its thick and synthesized beats. And “Feeling Good,” a recent cover that recalls its former rendition by Nina Simone, features Michael crooning over a billowing brass romp.

As with any retrospective compilation, though, omissions often stand out as much as what ultimately make the final cut. Songs like “I Want Your Sex,” “Monkey,” and “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” – all number one hits – are conspicuously absent here. Also missing is Michael’s towering performance of “Somebody To Love,” recorded at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and released on the EP, Five Live.

Even keeping such exclusions in mind, though, Twenty Five still makes for a respectable collection and, by extension, a welcome preview for George Michael’s long-awaited return to the North American concert stage.