Review: George Michael, “Faith: Legacy Edition”
It won’t make any sense in today’s media-saturated world, but in 1987 and 1988, George Michael was inescapable. The idea that one single artist could grab multiple genders, races, cliques and generations by the shoulders with his or her music is all but impossible today, but the man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou did just that. Faith, released by Epic Records in the fall of 1987, put six tracks in Billboard‘s Top 5 (two-thirds of them No. 1 hits), netted him a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, sold in excess of 25 million copies worldwide (10 million of those in the U.S. and one million of that 10 million in a single week) and turned him into one of pop’s hottest lightning rods, thanks to the controversial single “I Want Your Sex” and the racy video, both banned by the BBC. He also accomplished all of this in a year where Michael Jackson was at his most monolithically famous, Prince at his most artistically ambitious and U2 at their most Spider-Man-free.
Of course, all those accolades belie the most important facts behind the album: that Michael was at his most personally tortured as a human being, and that the resultant album is really as good as all the hype would have one believe. That latter point is the main thesis of Legacy’s deluxe edition of the album, available as a two-disc with DVD set (Epic/Legacy 88697 75320-2) or a deluxe box with vinyl and other bonus swag. The songs of Faith are still radio staples today, and enduring reminders of Michael at his best, rather than the more unfortunate stories that have surrounded him in the last decade (the most recent of which actually resulted in this set being delayed from September to now).
With years of hindsight, how does Faith stack up as an album? And how does this new reissue treat the material? These answers are after the jump.With five hit singles under its belt – “I Want Your Sex,” the title track, “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” “Monkey” and “Kissing a Fool” – you’d be forgiven for expecting the rest of Faith to have filler. You’d also be wrong. The non-hits – the slinky, plaintive “Hand to Mouth,” the Prince-ly “Hard Day” and the lite-rock, horn-infused social commentary of “Look at Your Hands” – have enough hooks to stand tall with the rest. And age hasn’t dulled those hits, either. Artists would kill to do what Michael did with almost no chord changes (the semi-rockabilly “Faith”), the right beats (“I Want Your Sex,” “Monkey”) or his plaintive tenor (the torch song “One More Try,” the jazzy “Kissing a Fool”). With a relatively tasteful remastering, there’s no reason to turn the volume up anymore when this disc is popped into your stereo.
Bonus audio material is ample if not exactly an out-of-the-gate home run. The Faith bonus disc features an additional nine tracks, all taken from various single releases. While a lot of it’s great to have on CD, particularly the instrumentals of “Faith” and “Kissing a Fool” and the remixes of “Monkey” by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, not all of it is terribly uncommon. “Fantasy,” a B-side from the “Waiting for That Day” single in 1991, was released on the compilation Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael in 1998. There is something to be said, though, for a pair of live covers of no less a luminary than Stevie Wonder. “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” from the “Father Figure” 12″, and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),” from George and Elton John’s live single version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” are surprisingly warm and full-voiced takes on one of the hardest soul singers to cover. (Together, they make the omission of the “Monogamy Mix” of “I Want Your Sex” – which combined all three parts of the song into one mix – just barely passable.)
]The best material in the well-stuffed set is actually the DVD, particularly the 40-minute vintage interview with well-known British television presenter Jonathan Ross. Michael, all of 23 at the time, is composed and mature when discussing his brief but intensely prolific career, but has a good rapport with the always-cutting Ross. Together, both offer a fresh alternative from the usual promotional fare. The 1988 featurette Music Money Love Faith is a bit more promotional in nature, but allows for some interesting insights into Michael’s then-impending Faith World Tour. (Catch the brief but intriguing discussions with the tour’s choreographer, Paula Abdul!) The disc closes with all the Faith music videos. The best is still the “Faith” clip, featuring Michael in his iconic shades, leather jacket and tight jeans posing and strumming beside a Wurlitzer jukebox. (Bonus points for including both “censored” and “uncensored” versions of “I Want Your Sex,” either of which are fascinatingly tame by today’s standards.)
Liner notes by Robbie Elson are your typical adulatory essay fare, though the digression into the album’s place among a conservative political age in the U.S. and U.K. is a worthwhile discussion topic. What’s more intriguing is the lengthy interview between Michael and journalist Mark Goodier. It puts a bit of a tragic face on what was a terrific era for pop music. Michael candidly confesses to “going for the jugular” with his music in a way that he admits he would not or could not do today. The media exposure – particularly in the light of his then-closeted homosexuality – also seems to have been a wearying subject; he admits to spending most of the year in sunglasses to stave off the press. That said, he does come around to look upon the LP with a fondness; he really deserves no less, with such a killer pop record he created.
Finally, one of the biggest successes comes in the form of the packaging. While recent deluxe editions have opted for flimsy digipaks and indicating stickers instead of the deluxe packs with O-cards we’ve come to expect over the last decade, Faith actually outdoes the norm, packing the discs in a perfect-bound book package and fitting that case in a black slipcase with gold foil embossing. (An insert underneath the cellophane and inside the case provides track listings and the original LP sleeve image, lest you forget what you’re looking for. It’s a credit to Sony that they follow their ongoing tradition of nicely-packed box sets with this set. (One minor gripe is the lack of discographical information concerning the B-sides, for those who wish to index their iTunes libraries by the original single order.)
Nearly 24 years later, Faith is a pop record that manages to do the near-impossible and live up to the hype. And should you elect to let yourself dive into the funky, sensual music of George Michael, you can’t do any better than making Faith: Legacy Edition a part of your collection.