“Well, I guess it would be nice.” You guess? It would be? Nice? Do you ever get the sense that George Michael was given a lot more credit for bringing the essence, if not the reality, of his sex life to radio airwaves than is actually reflected in his lyrics, if not persona? Do you think maybe, just maybe, his canniest move wasn’t to start playing all his own instruments and writing all his own songs, but to coyly leave open a number of strategically placed blanks for the rest of the world to fill? Yes, one of the most notorious hits from Faith—the nonuple-barreled blockbuster album that is almost more famous now for setting into motion the remainder of his escapist career, beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation that is Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1— probably set a then-new record for the number of times the word “sex” was uttered in a four-minute pop song. But did it actually ever move into the realm of the dangerously erotic? Not really. The message of the song: I’m a man, I want to have an orgasm. Hardly something that recalibrated anyone’s ideas about masculinity.
The urge to rewrite Faith as a missive about Michael’s emerging sexuality persists even today, in the wake of the many, far more explicit—or at least more honest—singles that followed. For example, it’s not too often you see press notes that just give into blatant image manufacturing, but there it is in black and white: “His olive complexion and stubble-whiskered Olympian good looks (courtesy of his Greek heritage), the trademark crucifix earring, leather motorcycle jacket, and blue jeans…” This is what the powers that be use to lead up to the claim that Faith “confirmed George’s status as a songwriter of outstanding ability and emotional depth.” If this is characteristic of how the world saw Michael (and, given the album’s nigh-limitless sales figures and string of industry awards including a Grammy for Album of the Year, many clearly did), it’s no small wonder the man behind the denim-encased ass began to feel a little contemplative about the tenor of his fame.
Which is why listening to Faith anew, freshly available in a remastered package with a bonus disc of B-sides and remixes and a extra DVD featuring the album’s trendsetting music videos, leaves so much to be desired—especially from the man at the center of it all. Though the new booklet of liner notes includes an interview in which Michael admits that he was fully aware of and exploring his own identity as a gay man, the album itself now clearly hides more than it reveals. Beyond “I guess it would be nice,” Michael flat out states, “I’ve got to think twice before I give my heart away/And I know all the games you play, because I play them too.”
If Faith is supposed to be such a candid mission statement, then why is it that the songs that would be considered the most revealing (i.e. the hit-after-hit-after-hit-after-hit side one stretching from “Faith” through “One More Try”) are produced so claustrophobically? There’s not one inch of free air to be found in the title track. It’s a fantastic, clean pop-rockabilly sound he chugs throughout, but it’s so tight that it leaves room for no one else. (Which is sort of the point, since he’s showing another presumably female prospect the door.) That unforgettable moment when he suspends all momentum in the bridge leading up to the final round of the chorus is almost asphyxiated. “I Want Your Sex” picks up a number of tricks from the naked funk of Prince, but stops short of engaging in the Purple One’s vocal intimations. Michael’s hedonism isn’t implied, it’s simply stated outright, leading up to the climactic moment where he robotically trades “Hoo-ahh” grunts against hard-S chants of “S-s-sex!” And both “One More Try” and, especially, the album’s crowning achievement, “Father Figure,” are produced to sound like a confessional booth turned into a sauna, both so intimate that they’re actually solitary.
The album’s second half is less memorable and less focused, but also more adventurous. The metallic dance-pop of “Hard Day” and “Monkey” (which alone justified the album’s rather presumptuous alignment with R&B) rest uneasily alongside the genre experimentalism of “Look at Your Hands” and “Kissing a Fool,” but each song asserts itself before the album lands its final softball pitch: “A Last Request,” a quiet-storm afterglow version of “I Want Your Sex” that’s more convincingly sensual than its parent track. All of which is to say that Faith is many things, but mainly it’s a tease, a point driven home by the special edition’s collection of music videos (both the broadcast and “uncensored” versions of “I Want Your Sex” are included) and copious photographs of Michael in his “olive” prime.
As perhaps the last pop blockbuster of the decade, it’s interesting to hold it up against the foremost. If Michael Jackson spent the rest of his career trying to live up to Thriller, then George Michael—from “Freedom” to “Too Funky” and from “Praying for Time” to “Star People”—has spent most of his career trying to somehow atone for Faith.