Alfred’s look at George Michael’s career this week has got me thinking a lot about, and binging on, the work of GM, both solo and in Wham! Which reminded me that back in December of 2005, I wrote the following piece for Stylus, on Wham!’s final album (titled The Final in the U.K., even). I’d ditch the whole Timberlake = Michael thesis of the first 2.5 paragraphs, but otherwise, I still quite like this.
I disagree with those who thought of Justin Timberlake’s solo debut, Justified, as his Off the Wall. No way is JT the new MJ; that’s clearly Usher, and his OTW was My Way (which would of course make Confessions his Thriller… but what’s he gonna come up with for his Bad? But I digress). The ‘80s analogue to Justin isn’t Jacko, but George Michael, and not (just) ‘cause he’s a whiter shade of pale.
Both Justin and George were the front-men of boy bands (if you’re willing to consider a duo a band, that is) who were clearly destined for bigger and better than ‘NSync or Wham!, respectively, could give ‘em. Both were teen heartthrobs harboring far greater artistic ambitions. Both knew a few things about being blue-eyed soul men. Catch my drift?
This all means that Justified was JT’s own Faith, of course—a declaration of perfect pop-soul independence that became a (slightly unexpected) world-beater. By that logic, ‘NSync’s studio swansong, Pop, was to JT as Wham!’s final full-length, 1986’s Music from the Edge of Heaven was to George. And whaddaya know, both albums feature their primary architects’ edgiest music yet (at the time), sketching out a rudimentary road map to the solo success that was to come. And each was its respective band’s finest effort. You’re damned right—I just declared Heaven superior to Make It Big, with no doubts.
Start with Heaven’s quasi-title track, “The Edge of Heaven”—this was years ahead of anything George had put his stamp on up to that point. The nicely crunchy guitar work, the nastily wailing-away sax, the barroom piano courtesy of George’s then-new pal Elton John, and George’s willingness to nearly talk-yell his vocals combined to make “Edge” Wham!’s most would-be-debauched, and unhinged, single.
It’s followed by the fairly brilliant “Battlestations,” the first flowerings of George’s then-nascent interest in sleek, stripped-down funk. Its track is based around a sleazy snare track—the kind that Prince would much more famously use on Sign “O” the Times the following year—a simple bassline, and a red light district trombone pretty unfamiliar in the pop diaspora. The song’s point is easy enough—“Now we spend more time in battle than we ever do in bed”—but so effectively conveyed in this manner it’s absurd. Faith’s “Hard Day” is the musical child of “Battlestations,” and it’s a bit better developed, too; for its time and place, however, “Battlestations” is aces (love the “Take off your designer clothes” line, too).
“I’m Your Man” and “Wham! Rap ‘86” are both closer to the Wham! of yore, with “Wham! Rap ‘86” being an (albeit effective) update of “Wham! Rap,” which appeared on Wham!’s 1983 debut Fantastic, and “I’m Your Man” being, well, essentially a Make It Big outtake. That makes it no less great—and it is a pretty splendid six minutes of pop confection—much the same way that “Wham! Rap ‘86” is, while still a 1986 track with white Brits rapping (er, no), moderately funky in its own way, and certainly entertaining if not exactly great, per sé. (I like its bassline especially.) Yes, all of those modifiers are necessary, thankyouverymuch.
So those four tracks make up the “hot” half of Heaven, with a quartet of ballads comprising the “cool” side. “A Different Corner” is a true-blue solo George single (as opposed to the assumed solo George of most of the rest of the album, ahem), a quiet, lovely entry in his catalog that should be as much of an adult contemporary radio recurrent as “Careless Whisper” is. The “live in China” track “Blue” is a throwaway, the kind of fair-to-middling ballad George can, and sometimes does, write in his sleep, and the album’s only thing close to a dud.
“Where Did Your Heart Go?” is a marvel, a cover of, I kid you not, a Was (Not Was) song from 1981. It’s a smoky, evocative track yet riddled with typical-for-them Was non sequiturs (“We’ll share a rusty can of corn”?!) that George somehow gets to the emotional core of, turning what could’ve been a lark into an impassioned performance. His interpretive gifts are on gorgeous display here.
Wrapping the album is the classic Christmas single—funny to me, as it’s all about heartbreak and only nominally about Christmas (listening to those plucked guitar notes in the intro, totally tropical)—“Last Christmas,” one of the purely prettiest songs George has ever written, or recorded. Produced lushly and lovingly (sleigh bells!), George croons his tale of romantic woe so sweetly it’s impossible to resist, so there’s really no point in trying (well, unless you’re an indie-rockist pigfucker, but then you’ve got bigger problems). It’s the perfect capper to all-too-short but oh-so-sweet entry in the George Michael catalog, a Wham! album that came and went yet still endures. Music from the Edge of Heaven is, incredibly, still in print (I don’t believe it’s ever gone out), so you have no excuses as to not (re)discovering it and seeing just how this album connects the dots for what was to come for George, from Faith to “Fastlove,” if not beyond. This holiday season, give it to someone, give it someone special.