The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, November 20, 2002
SONGS FOR AND OF THE BEREAVED

In my TLC piece last week I commented that musicians shouldn't make records when they have been bereaved. The results tend to be messy and over-sentimental, and are usually regretted by the artist subsequently. One exception has sprung to mind since then, however - Older by George Michael; his last proper album, released six years ago.

Forget that it's George Michael. Forget Wham! Overlook the overbaked "soul" and "passion" of Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 (both of which sound as if he's still scaling the walls of the Camden Town Good Music Society). Think of his expressed admiration for Joy Division's Closer and view Older as an extension of this sort of aesthetic post mortem. Because his lover died of Aids not long before this album was recorded, as did Antonio Carlos Jobim, who Michael says on the sleevenote "changed the way I listened to music." Indeed, the regretful and poignant haze which wafts throughout the album could be considered a depoliticised extension of what Jobim achieved on 1973's Matita Pere; instead of the massed ranks of "disappeared," this record is concerned with two disappearances only - that of the Other, and that of the artist.

The moment when Michael's alto floats in, embracing the word "kindness" over the aching minor keys of "Jesus To A Child," is worthy of Art Garfunkel or Green Gartside. A song of devastation sung by a ruined soul of a voice over the most delicate of Claus Ogerman-esque orchestrations. He is praying more to himself than to his lover. Eventually, as must always happen, the Other can only survive by being absorbed into himself: "So the words you could not say/I'll sing them for you/And the love we would have made/I'll make it for two."

He is looking for excuses not to die. The gut reaction is to satisfy his crassest cravings, thinking that this will push the grief down to a manageable level. Thus "Fastlove" where his desperation for penetration (without love) is palpable ("In the absence of security...I miss my baby") and made all the more shattering by the closing juxtaposition of Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots" - a remembrance of better times, of 1982 when Wham! were just starting up. You could always view it as the consequence of the outlook which he purveyed on "Young Guns" - this is what happens when you don't commit or get married. Your BMW cannot embrace you back.

Then he looks even further backwards for salvation, seeking refuge with a former Other in "Older" the song. But this is likewise doomed because he cannot fail to see him/her as a replacement/substitute for the lover who has just died. It is a mistake which the muted trumpet subtly admits ("I never should have looked back/In your direction").

The album is less successful, as such records tend to be, when Michael looks to adopt then-current trends. Thus the post-Portishead trip hop FX on "Spinning The Wheel" sound forced, pasted on (though one incidentally notes the presence of ex-Haircut One Hundred saxophonist Phil Smith in the horn section). It's six o'clock in the morning and this particular Other is never coming home, nor does the singer particularly want them to. As he goes on to muse bitterly in the Stevie Wonder-esque "It Doesn't Really Matter," it's all pointless; the Other doesn't exist anymore, he can't just die, well yes he could just die because that's actually what he wants to do, doesn't want to spend the next 50 years in the waiting room, oh boy is he trying to convince himself that it's all nothing, it's all over, it is spent, it is history, no it is part of him and if you throw that away, best throw yourself away too.

"The Strangest Thing" utilises an Eastern (or possibly Greek) mood with a death-laden minor chord shift in the chorus to root us in his grave. "Take my dreams/Childish and weak at the seams/Please don't analyse/Please just be there for me" because I'm not ready, might not ever be ready, to re-enter the world, to connect with humanity again - just hold me that's ALL I want, you understand, you know what's going through me, I need I need I need

"To Be Forgiven." The river - "I'm going down/Won't you help me." "The cold, cold water is rushing in...maybe the child in me/Will just let me go." Is he considering suicide? He has tried but cannot get over this obstacle, calling your lover an obstacle, the very idea, the nerve - he cannot get past the pain. WHAT HAVE I GOT TO DO OR SAY TO CONVINCE YOU?

Nothing. I have to convince myself. It's only me who's stopping me.

"Move On" he resolves in the next song, a Prince-like, queerly synthetic and Arctic synth-jazz groove complete with a fake supperclub audience. His almost Gibb-like vocal fragility struggles to keep up with the decided onward motion of the bassline. Do we believe him? "Everybody thinks I'm doing AOK/They ought to know by now."

"Star People" is where he has a bitch about empty celebrity. Of course it is a torrent of self-hatred directed against himself, despite all the "girl" references - "there's a difference between...you and me." "Without all that attention you'd die...I'd die. We'd die...wouldn't we? WELL WOULDN'T WE?" The music is too Jools Holland "pure" to convince me, and it certainly doesn't convince him. "Who gives a fuck about your problems, darling/When you can pay the rent...how much is enough?"

Look out and beyond yourself. The closing "You Have Been Loved" returns to the Jobim mood, only for the first time on this album he realises that other people may be affected by the death too, and perhaps in deeper, less soluble ways. Like his mother for instance - "She just sits and counts the hours/Searching for her crime."

"Well I've no daughters, I've no sons,
Guess I'm the only one
Living in my life."

But her problems don't cancel out yours. You weren't even the worst. You didn't die. You only had to sit there and watch him die. Helplessly. Hopelessly.

A final fast-track through the album's themes (an "apres-ture"?) before Michael whispers at the album's close: "It feels good...to be free." But does this only apply to his Sony contract? Is he really free? What has he done since Older? The men's room. He may have had to install self-deprecation in his inner cupboard, but at what actual price? Since 1996, it has essentially been cover versions and novelty songs - "Have I Got News For You" or whatever the last one was called. I don't expect that Polydor are unduly worried about the one-single-at-a-time contract; they might be reluctant to take him on for an album. Despite a new partner, one wonders if he still cannot get past what happened.

If he can't do it, then what hope is there for ...?

Did I ever pretend that this weblog was EVER about anything else?


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