George Michael’s farewell tour of three years ago, when he claimed he was quitting the stage because the “compromises are too huge”, turns out to have been a case of arrivederci, not ciao. For here he was at the Royal Albert Hall with a 41-piece orchestra in tow, singing orchestral versions of his and other people’s songs on the London leg of his “Symphonica” tour. Welcome back, George. It’s like you’ve never been away.
Michael’s impulsiveness is one of his most appealing qualities. By that I don’t mean his problems with drugs or wayward driving skills. I mean his uncensored nature, the sense that he’s making up for the years of being closeted about his sexuality by saying and doing whatever he wants. Unlike other stars in the 100m-plus album-sales league he doesn’t come across as distant or bland. There’s a warmth about him; an impression that he hasn’t untethered himself from the rest of humanity.
Unfortunately, however, his unpredictability has had unhappy consequences with his ill-conceived Symphonica project. Michael in his normal mode is the consummate pop-soul vocalist, smooth yet powerful, a charmer. What he is not is a jazz singer, in which role he miscast himself for much of the show, with competent but emotionless versions of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and turning The Police’s “Roxanne” into a croony, finger-clicking number.
A cover of Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town” was a success, Michael swapping Wainwright’s operatic excess for a tender, kindlier style of orchestral pop. So was a blaring, big-band version of Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette”. But the rest was static and flat, including a new song about the recent break-up of a long-term relationship, Michael singing “I’m so sorry” in an electronically treated voice that made him sound synthetic and insincere.
Oddly, the orchestra’s role in all this was minor. It rarely came to the fore in the songs; instead it murmured background blandishments, as wallpaper-like as the patterns blossoming on an LED lightscreen behind the stage. At the end Michael picked up the tempo with old hits such as “I’m Your Man”. Finally some colour and urgency were injected into proceedings. But the sight of the orchestra sitting doing nothing in the background underlined the sense of having been present at a lavish but misbegotten folly.