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George Michael - Faith Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit the liminal sex-pop of George Michael’s 1988 debut album.

In 1986, George Michael wandered deep into himself. He realized that, at some point in the five years he had recorded and toured with his bandmate Andrew Ridgeley in Wham!, he had completely lost track of who he was. With Wham!, Michael had achieved his childhood dream of becoming unreasonably famous; he glided across stages, and fans’ eyes waded in his direction. His enormous blonde hair looked like a work of relief sculpture, and his voice pulsed with brightness, like a lightbulb about to burst in its socket. He was one of the world’s biggest pop stars by the time his retro-pop duo fell apart; he was also 23, only just beginning to figure out who he was and what kind of music he wanted to make.

Michael felt isolated, anxious over what to do next—the future seemed elusive and unstable, as precarious as a song’s placement on the pop charts. He was sinking into what he would later characterize as an eight-month long-depression, wondering if he even wanted to return to music. In the spring of ’86, two months before the final Wham! Show at London’s Wembley Stadium, Michael released a solo single called “A Different Corner.” Accompanied by a stark, black-and-white video, it was a sad and strange song that seemed to disappear as it happened, the brief snowflakes of synth and Michael’s tenor evaporating into air. It’s as gorgeous as it is uncertain of itself, quietly stealing back every emotion it offers, leaving behind a crumpled blankness. “The problem was just that I had developed a character for the outside world that wasn’t me,” he said. “So I made the decision to uncreate the person I had created and become more real.”

A little over a year later, he drew a thick, Princely scribble in empty space. It would become the first single for his solo debut, 1988’s Faith, a song called “I Want Your Sex.” A near-total photonegative of “A Different Corner”’s lustless vacuum, built out of the boiling dark of the clubs Michael loved to dance in, “I Want Your Sex” employed a sudden fluency with sexuality to define his post-boy band maturity. He fastidiously programmed every detail of the song—even the mummified sub-rhythms that kick like pistons underneath it, which were produced by an error in a synthesizer pattern from a different track. Michael was so charmed by the accidental thicket of snares and kicks that he built “I Want Your Sex” directly on top of it. “I’ve danced to records like this for years and I buy records like this all the time but I’ve never really had the courage to make one,” he said.

The song was immediately banned by the BBC and strategically suppressed by radio, but it eventually blossomed as a single on MTV once Michael added a safe sex disclaimer to the beginning of the video. The clip focused almost inflexibly on Michael’s face, shadowed by an unfocused haze of stubble, singing in a frayed sub-frequency of his former boyish tenor, all interchanged with shots of body parts: legs walking in a garter belt, water cascading over feet and torsos, Michael writing “EXPLORE MONOGAMY” in lipstick on his then-girlfriend Kathy Jeung’s thigh and back.

In interviews about “I Want Your Sex” and its video, Michael always redirected the subject toward monogamy. He didn’t want the song to be misconstrued as an untamed celebration of casual sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic; at the time, monogamy seemed to Michael not only a thoughtful response to AIDS but dimensionally sexy in and of itself. “I wanted to write a song which sounded dirty but which was applicable to someone that I really cared about,” he told Interview in 1988. “I mean, it is the perfect situation to really love someone to death and to want to rip their clothes off at the same time, isn’t it?” But it’s a song so sunken into its desire for someone that Michael’s cautious exploration of safe sex gets lost among the chorus’ seductive synth wobbles and the liquid blend of lust and angst with which he sings the word “sex.”

Michael himself seemed unable to glimpse “I Want Your Sex” beyond its controversy, already looking to exchange it for a different song, a different impression, a different corner of himself to exhibit to the world. In the video for his next single, Faith’s title track, a jukebox needle skates away from “Sex” and gently lowers onto the surface of a new disc. The chorus of an old Wham! single, “Freedom,” bruises slowly into the silence, played on a Yamaha DX7 synth tuned to its “cathedral organ” setting.

The melody is funereal instead of flourescent, as if Michael were entombing his teen-pop past in the bellows of a vast pipe organ. It’s among the first instances of Michael commenting on his music as he made it, embedding his songs with footnotes and reprised themes that connected with his early career. Michael became fascinated with continuity, with how things could change when they were revisited, sometimes revising his songs whole-cloth (“Freedom ’90”) or lightly modernizing them for a new decade (“I’m Your Man ’96”), making his form of pop music a rich and intertextual network of references and repeating motifs.

Out of the deep mournful glow of the organ, emerges… an acoustic guitar? Strumming the Bo Diddley beat? It sounds almost frail playing against a rhythmic skeleton of snaps, handclaps, and whispers across the snare rim. The camera drifts over Michael’s new image: leather jacket shrugging loosely from his shoulders, his gaze buried somewhere beneath impenetrable sunglasses, pretending to strum a sunburst archtop guitar.

In 1987, popular rock music was trying fill arenas with enormous waves of echo; “Faith”’s chords sounded crisp as the blue jeans pasted to Michael’s ass in the video. He was employing rock as a texture, as a signifier of history and depth, absorbing the guitar rhythms of the ’50s and ’60s just as he embedded the drums of the Motown songs from his youth in tracks like Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” It made Michael’s work as serious as it was playful, taking established songforms and converting them into modern pop.

The rest of Faith embodies this approach, a montage of different colors and tempos from pop’s unabridged past—the fluttering rockabilly of the title track, the deluxe synthetic bath of “Father Figure,” and the hardboiled synth funk of “I Want Your Sex” all occur on the same side of an album, like alternate histories talking to each other through time, all before “One More Try” wafts in like wind through an empty cathedral.

During the sessions for Faith, Michael and engineer Chris Porter occasionally recorded songs measure by measure, with Michael singing fragments of verses against a rudimentary LinnDrum pattern. Some of Michael’s songs didn’t even have physical demos before they were captured in the studio; they’d reel out fitfully from his head as they were recorded. The highlights of the darker, more club-lit corners of the album’s second side, “Hard Day” and “Monkey,” were constructed in this way, built on a program of minimal rhythmic cross-hatchings from Michael’s drum machine, his voice dancing between spotlights of synth bass.

Even through the dense programming, Michael’s voice remains at the center of the record. It always shapeshifts beyond its form, whether whispering through “Father Figure”’s garden of smoke or exchanging enthusiastic choruses with the choir that eventually materializes from it. His voice’s most powerful showcase, the peak of Michael’s career, is in the mournful procession of “One More Try.” The song technically lacks a chorus; in its place is an evolving verse whose vocal melody sounds unhinged from any of its chord changes, swimming upwards through an arctic fog. His voice starts to rapidly escalate through notes; when he sings “I don’t want to learn to/Hold you, touch you…” he hits a note of such trembling uncertainty that it bends like curved glass.

“One More Try” is lyrically tentative, a gospel-pop song that’s faintly baffled by the idea of its own salvation. It sits in the perspective of someone too wounded to open themselves up to another person, trapped in an in-between state. Faith itself seems stranded between identities in its reckless skating through genres, from rock to synth pop to the skipping pulse of clubs. It’s an album that’s divided down the center between faith and funk, an album on which the sex song is actually about monogamy—an album that reveals more of itself the more one pays attention to the drift of its details.

“I feel this is not a pop album,” Michael told SPIN in 1987. He thought Faith was more musically sophisticated, that it resembled the black pop and dance records he was listening to at the time. On “Hand to Mouth,” he displays an evolving social consciousness that seems inherited directly from Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, characters and their cyclical struggles spilling through a cityscape of wavering synths. He performed black pop forms so well, with such verisimilitude, that each song migrated flexibly between radio formats—Faith was the first album by a white artist to top Billboard’s R&B Chart and four of its six singles floated up the Hot 100, each hitting No. 1, one after the other.

Michael planned a nine-month world tour after the record’s release, with rigorously choreographed shows. While on the road, he contracted laryngitis in Australia and over the course of the next few tour dates, his voice eroded further. A cyst began to form on his vocal cords. He needed throat surgery. He felt as though he were having a nervous breakdown. “I genuinely thought, ‘This is what happens. This is when you lose it’,” he told The Big Issue in 1996. He was growing more uncomfortable with having his picture taken; even on the cover of Faith, he’s folding himself up into the inner shadows of his leather jacket. He later said he had spent nearly a year wearing sunglasses, as if he had succumbed to the image he had invented for the album. “I think I even went to bed in them,” he said. “I just couldn’t make eye contact with strangers.”

Having produced an album more successful than anything he did in Wham!, Michael found himself stranded again, depressed, uncertain of the future. He was burdened again by the inflexibility of his image, trapped in an opaque layer of himself that was not really himself. He was 25 years old, unsure of what he should do next. Two years later, he briefly disappeared from his own music videos, leaving no trace of himself, receded to pure symbols: an exploded jukebox, and a leather jacket on fire.

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