George Michael’s 1996 album Older turned 20 in 2016, the year in which he tragically passed away. It does not feel like long has passed for us to already be at the album’s next milestone anniversary but here we are. Michael’s third album as a solo artist, Older was a major commercial success, especially in Europe, although it was a less successful output in America than his previous two albums. Here in the UK it was his best-selling album ever, at 1.8 million sales, reaching No.1 where it stayed for three weeks, spending 35 weeks in the top 10 overall. The album produced six singles, two of which, ‘Fastlove’ and ‘Jesus To A Child’, reached No.1, with the other four peaking in the top three, still a record achievement.
With my parents having been teenagers during his heyday – my mum had Wham posters on her bedroom walls growing up – George Michael’s music was very present in my own childhood and teenage years along with other similar artists. I considered myself a big fan and still vividly remember sitting with my mum in our front room late at night on Boxing Day 2016 both holding back the tears listening to his music after the news of his passing. Yet up to then my interest had mainly been in his Wham albums and first solo album, the immaculate Faith. I had barely scratched the surface with Older. Despite it being his most successful album by most measurements, songs from Older are rarely played on the radio relatively to his other hits.
Since 2016 I have had ample time to explore the album and it is clear to me that it does not necessarily fit into what one would naturally associate as a George Michael sound, which may explain the relative lack of recognition today in the pop culture whirl. Most of the album lacks the energy of Michael’s previous work, instead preferring a slower and more reflective pace. Considering the impact America has on the global pop culture psyche, that this album was less well received there might help explain why much of this album in particular has been relatively memory-holed. There is none of the camp energy of his Wham days or ’80s music in general which he is usually associated with, but instead, the album takes on much heavier issues especially with regards to his sexuality which he was yet to be publicly open about.
Michael was no longer the teenage heartthrob singing love songs on this album but a complicated human being singing about his own struggle
With much of today’s pop culture significantly defined by nostalgia, usually for a more fun and innocent past (which exists only really in the imagined sense), an album like Older does not fit all that well. The 2019 film Last Christmas, inspired by his music, features just one song from Older: ‘Fastlove’, the one song on the album which departs from the album’s introspective and melancholy tone. Michael was no longer the teenage heartthrob singing love songs on this album, but a complicated human being singing about his own struggles – his very public legal battle with Sony Music and the death of his partner Anselmo Feleppa in 1993 from an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage.
One of the album’s No.1s, ‘Jesus To A Child’ was dedicated to the memory of Feleppa, although it was only presented as a more general ode to a lost lover, given the then private nature of his sexuality. It is a haunting song, his own personal grief very evident in the lyrics now we know the full story behind it, and of course hitting on religious angles very present in much of Michael’s work. The other No.1 ‘Fastlove’ is my personal favourite on the album. Despite the strengths of Older as an album, it is probably my favourite of it because it is the outlier, a faster and extroverted tune, and a sure dance hit. There is an undeniable smoothness in the way the song develops, reflecting the way the song’s protagonist makes his way through hookup culture. Despite the title, this is not really a song about love but just about sex, a theme Michael would later hit on in his 1998 classic ‘Outside’, although in a more explicitly homosexual way than this song could manage. Again, looking back, it is very clear that Michael was not singing about women in this song either.
The darker and more personal nature of those songs, particularly in the context of his ultimately tragic life, are not the ones people want to remember
Those are the two best known songs today from the album, with the rest of the tracklist not having anywhere as near a significant shelf life. Although it is not the ultimate barometer, a quick look at Spotify finds them severely underplayed compared to many other Michael songs which achieved far less initial chart success. This reflects my previous assertion that aside from ‘Jesus to a Child’, the darker and more personal nature of those songs, particularly in the context of his ultimately tragic life are not the ones people want to remember. ‘Spinning the Wheel’ has an assured grooviness to it and was only kept off the very top of the charts by The Spice Girls’s ‘Wannabe’. A truly melancholy tune, ‘You Have Been Loved’ was itself only kept off the peak of the charts by Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’, which became the best-selling single in UK chart history. It may be the case that those songs and the rest of this album have been overshadowed in the public psyche not only by the first two songs of the album but also the strength of the rest of Michael’s vast body of work.
Listening to their words today a more snobbish listener could lament that the relatively shallow love songs of the ’80s are the ones Michael is still best known for rather than the personal depth of Older. I’m just grateful to listen to an artist so well capable of creating different sounds for different people and different times, and it may be the case that Older does eventually get the proper resurgence it is probably due.