“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”‘s not the type of song any great songwriter would like to leave as a musical legacy, and George Michael knew that when he decided to split Wham! up in 1986. After four successful years of making easily digestible pop/dance anthems with (questionably talented) partner Andrew Ridgeley, George retreated into the studio with his sights on making an adult pop album that would resonate with fans in the same manner as the then demigods of pop music-Michael Jackson & Madonna.
With Faith, George’s goals were met, and then some. Almost as perfect as a pop album could be, Faith is one of the iconic pop albums of all time, never mind the era it came from. The album-which fused together Brit-pop with soul, funk and jazz influences- was the Number One album of 1988. It spawned four Number One singles and won three American Music Awards as well as the Grammy for Album Of The Year. Most improbably, it cast the white, British Michael on top of Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles and Albums chart, proving that in addition to songwriting talent and a photogenic look, George had SOUL.
More than twenty-three years after Faith’s release, a reissue proves that time has not dulled the album’s impact. Finally given an upgrade in the sound quality, Michael’s debut solo effort is also now available in a variety of deluxe packages, including all manner of extras, ranging from a bonus disc containing remixes, covers and instrumental versions (the version I sprung for), to a DVD containing interview footage and the album’s iconic videos to a hardbound book.
Composing, producing and playing most of the instruments on the album himself, “Faith” very closely recals the most pop-friendly work of someone George most definitely was trying to emulate: Prince. On the album’s funkiest tracks, “I Want Your Sex” and “Hard Day”, the influence is readily apparent. The bouncy synthesized beats, the focus on sexual imagery (or, in the case of ” I Want Your Sex” overt sexual content), George speeding his voice up on “Hard Day” just like Prince on “if I Was Your Girlfriend” and “U Got The Look”. While most people know the furor “I Want Your Sex” caused (banned from radio, banned from MTV until George added a disclaimer to the clip’s introduction), “Hard Day” is probably the better song. With a percusiive groove that recalls the best of cutting-ege 80’s dance, George (whose songwriting has always had a bit of a nasty streak) offers sinister words to a lover and articulates a very serious case of sexual tension “Welll you’re not the first/you’re not the last/you’re noteventheonewholovesmethebest/but/ALL/I/THINK ABOUT IS YOU!!” (sung just like it’s written). Even without the lyrics, this song stands out as a classic dance jam. A lot of folks don’t know that it, not the title track, was the first official single released from Faith. Geared towards clubs and urban radio, it didn’t chart pop but narrowly missed the Top 20 on the R&B singles chart in the fall of 1987.
Elsewhere, George proves himself a master of many disparate styles. “Faith” may be one of the 5 most played songs of the Eighties (and it’s video is equally as memorable thanks to George’s wriggling hiney…along with the leather jacket, the jukebox and all that jazz), but it’s one hell of a smart record: short, hooky and bare, as George is backed-rockabilly style-with just an acoustic guitar and handclaps. Elsewhere, he tries his hand at lounge-jazz with the Sade-ish “Kissing A Fool” (on which George also plays bass), and the politically minded, hushed “Hand To Mouth” (which I recall getting airplay as an album track nearly two years after Faith‘s release).
Many compare George (as a songwriter and a vocalist) to Elton John, and while the two do have similarities, Elton never really played the romantic card (thank Gawd). George obviously knows how to keep the bedroom candles lit. “Father Figure” is an ambient, mysterious cut with a mantra-like chorus and a haunting synthesizer arrangement. George has said in interviews that “Father” was originally cut as a more traditional dance cut. I would’ve liked to hear that version, but it apparently didn’t make the cut of the bonus disc.
The album’s centerpiece, however, is “One More Try”. This hushed ballad is a cross between gospel confessional and waltz, with some of the best singing any vocalist has EVER put down on record. George has gone on since to be known as a confessional songwriter, but this was really the first instance where it sounds like he really laid his heart out on a song. This was my favorite song straight through junior high school and probably would still be had I not heard it about 999,999,999 times since. It’s basically the story of a guy who gets his heart broken by his first love, which is spelled out in the lyrics: “There ain’t no joy/for an uptown boy/Whose teacher has just told him goodbye”. My pick, hands down, for at least one of the Top 5 Broken heart songs of all time.
Faith isn’t 100% perfection. “Look At Your Hands” is a rock-ish foray into storytelling, as George tells the tale of an abused woman. The song itself sounds a bit underdeveloped, especially the juvenile chorus. “Monkey” is a great song, but it’s much better in the Jam/Lewis remixed version that appeared on the single and makes a few appearances on the bonus disc. I would’ve liked the second disc on this set to be fleshed out a little more, but you still get two excellent Stevie Wonder covers (“Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever)”, the outtake/B-side “Fantasy”, a couple of instrumentals (including the lush track for “Kissing a Fool”, and several reinterpretations of the hits, including a 9-minute extended version of “Hard Day”. Unfortunately, “I Want Your Sex” is still bundled up as part 1 and the completely unnecessary part 2.
George’s image hasn’t had the best of times lately. A protracted battle with his record company coupled with an untimely widowhood unquestionably damaged his career in the U.S. more than his eventual coming out did. To be fair, a recording schedule that can charitably be judged as “leisurely” hasn’t helped, either. Still in his mid-forties, George remains capable of taking command of a stage, as his well-received “Twenty-Five” tour proved. With a recent incarceration now firmly behind him, let’s hope George can regain the magic of his golden era. Might it be possible that the second coming of “Faith” can result in a career renaissance for the man who was once the biggest pop star in the land?
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