There is little doubt regarding George Michael’s musical talent, but I have not always had such a high opinion of him. It wasn’t until I heard his 2014 live release Symphonica, that my opinion began to change.
Yes, I am one of those individuals that would roll their eyes every time their significant other wanted to listen to Wham!, but since purchasing Symphonica, I have also picked up The Best Of Wham!. I would be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed it. To be completely honest, I love it! While I still believe the ‘boy-band’ is a money grab for record labels who exploit musicians and their often young fan base, a lot of them do have excellent songs, including Wham! However, we’re not hear to talk about the origins of George Michael, but a relatively rare release of new material by an exceptional artist.
Perhaps it would be better to refer to this release as newish material given the live Symphonica performances, recorded between 2011-12, are a collection of well known covers with a half dozen original songs thrown into the mix. Quite amazingly, these covers mix perfectly with Michael’s own works and, Symphonica is fluid masterpiece without bad track to be found. So good, in-fact, that I would say this album is my favorite release of 2014. If there is a negative to be found, it would be the sibilance in Michael’s vocals. That said, Michael’s vocal talents have always had a fair amount of sibilance, so I look upon it as artistic license.
The version of Symphonica I own is the High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray (HFPA) release. It is important to note that this Blu-ray release is audio only, with no video. It does however show the cover artwork, song list, and audio format selection on the display when the disc is spinning. An example of this is shown below:
Personally, I don’t mind that there is no video content as the audiophile in me cares more about the mastering and audio quality than any live video of the performance. In-fact, despite being a fan of music videos and live performances through the 90s, I find that in the past decade and a half, I have become less interested in these aspects of the music industry. Perhaps it is that the single is no longer being sold with an accompanying music video. I guess I prefer to listen, rather than watch. That said, each option offers a unique experience that is subjective to the individual.
As usual, I digress, the sonic performance is incredible and playing the album in DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/96kHz is as close to having a private audience with George Michael as I’m ever going to get. I prefer playing all my HFPA albums in DTS, but you will need to ensure your Blu-ray player can either decode, or bitstream the data along to an amplifier that can then decode the DTS audio stream. Thankfully, my Oppo BDP-103 and Bose Lifestyle 235 Series II systems are up to the task. PCM is also available and is adequate, but I much prefer the low end boost that is a trademark of the DTS sound. Dolby True HD is there too, but I’ve yet to be impressed by that encoding format, so I just don’t use it. If you’re a Dolby TrueHD fan, let me know what you think the benefits are against DTS and PCM along with what I should be listening for.
The packaging adequately presents the album, but I find the print quality of the cover is substandard, especially when compared to the included booklet. It is just dull and lifeless by comparison and most probably produced at the end of a print run, or on a setup that was calibrated differently.
The booklet showcases a number of photographs from the live performances, but other than album credits, lyrical liner notes are not included. Given the majority of songs on the album are covers, this is understandable as gaining permissions for reproduction would have been a chore in itself. Not to mention, I don’t recall any live albums including lyrics. Do you know of any?
The disc itself is presented in black on black, reminiscent of AC/DC’s Back In Black album and Metallica’s self-titled ‘black album’ Metallica. I like the subtleness of this styling, but I’m not sure it suits this album. Included in the HFPA release is a download code for the MP3. Yes, I don’t know why they bother adding this either. Okay, it is a value added offer, but where is my FLAC version of the album? Some HFPA releases give this option, but it is certainly not included on the majority of releases. This is one reason why I still love the SACD Hybrid format. It is a standard Redbook CD, when played on any CD player, and a high resolution disc when played on a compatible SACD player. Honestly, I'm amazed that the SACD format never replaced CD as it offers the best of both worlds.
That all said, let's take a look at the songs shall we?
Through is a George Michael original (from Patience) and it is a beautifully peaceful song to start the album with. The guitar strumming introduction, intermingled with vocals, sets the scene as Michael progresses in vocal range towards the the chorus. In this song, as in all, the orchestral backing is subtile and adds to the song. It reminds me of how much I adore Metallica’s S&M album as again, the orchestra takes their music in a different direction whereby one could easily say that that is how their music should have sounded all along. In a similar way, I don’t know as I want to listen to a new George Michael album without a backing orchestra. It is a perfect fit.
My Baby Just Cares For Me is upbeat and jazzy. It is a song that would do any jazz club in New Orleans proud. The horn section in this song is perfectly balanced and I appreciate this as sometimes the brashness of that instrument can overpower a song.
A Different Corner slows things down with gorgeous vocals and acoustic guitar and bass strumming. It is a simple and uncomplicated rhythm, but one that highlights Michael’s vocal capabilities. This is another George Michael original datIng back to the mid-80s and the final Wham! release, Music From The Edge Of Heaven.
Praying For Time was originally the lead single on Michael’s second solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. It is an incredibly moving song and one that I would say rivals any socially motivated song in music history.
Let Her Down Easy is a song I absolutely love. It was originally written and recorded by Terence Trent D’Arby on his album Symphony Or Damn. The song is just so soothing, especially as it is presented in a lullaby style. George Michael performs it beautifully.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is an absolute classic and one of the best renditions of the song I have ever heard.
Feeling Good has to be one of the best songs to ever include wind instruments. It is epic! George Michael performs this tune beautifully and certainly has the vocal range to pull it off. That said, I still love Nina Simone’s version on I Put A Spell On You.
John And Elvis Are Dead is a homage to fallen artists that have changed and influenced so many creative individuals. It is a good song that was first featured on Michael’s album Patience, but I’m not sure how I feel about the song in general. As part of an album experience, it works, but as a song on its own, I’m not so sure.
Any fan of Sting and The Police will love Michael’s version of Roxanne. Michael plays it with a jazz styling and given that I have mixed opinions of The Police, I find that this version is exceptional and changes the relationship I have with the song.
Going To A Town is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Prior to hearing it on this release, I had never heard the song before. To say that I was completely blown away is an understatement. The original was written and recorded by Rufus Wainwright for his album Release The Stars.
Idol is an Elton John and Bernie Taupin collaboration from John’s 1976 album Blue Moves. It is a beautiful song that sadly hasn’t received the acknowledgement I believe it deserves. It is always wonderful to see artists cover a lesser known song and make it their own. I feel George Michael has achieved just that.
Brother Can You Spare A Dime is an American Classic and one that George Michael has recorded and previously released on Songs From The Last Century. Despite being written during the Great Depression, the song is timeless and certainly has not aged.
Wild Is The Wind has been recorded by some of the great performers of the world, including Johnny Mathis, Nina Sìmone, and David Bowie. It really doesn’t matter which version you listen to as the song is simply gorgeous. That said, Michael’s rendition is beyond reproach.
You’ve Changed is the final track and closes the album on a perfect jazz feel that will make you want to listen to the entire album again.
Honestly, George Michael is an amazing jazz vocalist. That certainly isn’t an opinion I ever thought I would have made, especially knowing his dance/pop recording history. It just proves that if one is truly talented, they can adapt and evolve.
Symphonica is about as good as it gets. It is recorded and mastered with superb precision and the selection of songs is perfect for any mood, or time of day. It is an album that you simply must own, or at the very least listen to.