George Michael has released only one studio album, Patience, since last millennium, and that was seven years ago. So it’s more than a little frustrating that he’d break his silence with a live disc documenting a 2011-12 tour that didn’t even reach North America.
Symphonica picks up where his least rewarding release, 1999′s Songs from the Last Century, left off. Like that string-packed covers album, it’s overseen by veteran studio whiz Phil Ramone — it’s actually the last project the late jazz-pop producer worked on. Ramone may be revered for the clarity and class of his recordings, but Symphonica features a peculiar sound mix that bathes Michael’s voice in arena reverb while backing him in largely orchestral arrangements that sound as if they were meticulously recorded in a state-of-the-art studio. Much of these ballads are quite quiet, yet the audience is loud — you can hear individual hoots and hollers.
Five tracks (six on the deluxe edition) overlap with Last Century, yet rarely deviate from their studio counterparts. Elsewhere, Michael mines his own songbook of hits and deep album cuts. Symphonica leads with a pointed choice that promisingly thwarts expectations: “Through,” the pointedly final track of Patience, is a candid look at Michael’s decision to avoid the spotlight. In this context, it feels directed to his remaining loyal fans: “They may chase me to the ends of the earth/ But I’ve got you babe.”
The familiarity and meditative pacing emphasizes that while Michael remains a passionate and dynamic singer, he rarely summons the power he possessed when these songs were first recorded. “One More Try” supports him with a lush gospel background choir, but elsewhere he sounds exposed. With only one uptempo cut in the set, a brief “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” the rest just feels too similar.
“Idol” and “Let Her Down Easy” are two bright spots, mining unexpected sources with superior results. “Let Her Down Easy” hails from Terence Trent D’Arby’s 1993 album Symphony or Damn, yet it feels as though Michael penned it himself to show off the sweetest spot in his tenor. “Idol,” a highlight of Elton John’s 1976 double album Blue Moves, similarly flatters, but also comments on Michael’s own life. “The number one crush in a schoolgirl’s eyes/ But don’t pretend that it won’t end in the depths of your despair,” he belts knowingly. Symphonica gives further evidence that Michael lacks interest in satisfying the demands of his former existence. Take it or leave it, this is one more pop album from him about no longer wanting to be a pop star.