From one George to another, today we have the #1 selling album of 1988, which was released in late 1987. Having left his partnership in Wham!, George Michael released his blockbuster debut album, “Faith”, and it was a massive success. Wanting to put himself in the same category as Prince and Michael Jackson as an artist, Michael again was the creative force here, writing and performing much of the music on the album. I didn’t fully appreciate his talents at the time nor did I embrace this album when it was released, although others in my life, to include my friend Jim and my sister Amy, were both big fans, as was most of the pop music world. Enduring as a classic, it rates today as album #151 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time, which feels a bit low, and I wonder if it is being punished for being such a commercial success in addition to its critical acclaim.
The album opens with the organ chords to the Wham! Song “Freedom”, before bursting into the simple guitar chord gem that is the title track. A massive pop hit then and now, “Faith” remains one of his biggest hits ever. The entire record is laced with sexual tension and relationship sensuality, and the next song, “Father Figure” pushes those boundaries with perfect musical accompaniment.
For all of the success of the record, the real shock factor came with the first single of the album, “I Want Your Sex”. Embedded in the late 1980s, when the opposing forces of the Reagan right, the euphoric late-night clubbing and sexual freedom and the ever-growing dark shadow of HIV & AIDS on sexual experimentation all collided and Michael confronted it head on with this song. I remember the disclaimer MTV was either required or was compelled to air before they played his equally racy music video, and this song was a huge gamble for Michael. For it to work, it had to leverage his charismatic beauty and sexual undertones, and most importantly, if you are going to put this out as a first single, it better be a good song. Fortunately for all, he created a masterpiece groove that accompanies this song, and it reinforced once again that he was much more than just a pretty face. I have often heard Part One of this song which we all recognize as the single, but Part Two immediately follows, which is an extended horns-based extension of the song, a really well done continuation of that core melody.
“One More Try” is an emotional and powerful ballad about giving the pain of love another shot, and reflects the diversity of songwriting Michael was able to deliver. The next three songs, “Hard Day”, “Hand to Mouth” and “Look at Your Hands” are all really good songs, even if they were overshadowed by the many hits on this album.
A sad irony of the next song, “Monkey”, explores the obsession of substance abuse within a relationship, and it is a masterpiece dance track as well. This may be my overall favorite song on this great album. From front to back, Michael reached that goal he aimed for, as one of the biggest and most capable artists in the world. An interesting exploration of this time in his life comes on a subsequent record, on “Freedom ‘90”, where he tries to reshape how the world looks at him as image vs. artist. Not on this album, but I had to mention it as my all-time favorite George Michael song.
As we all know, George Michael unfortunately joined a way-too-long list of artists whose life ended way too prematurely, and his demons with relationships and substance remained a source of complication throughout his life, but in spite of, and perhaps because of this, he gave us an unbelievable catalog of music, with this massive album serving as the centerpiece of his great career.