Britain has a Pop Establishment as surely as it has a political one, and the charity tribute gig is its equivalent of a State Funeral. The line-up for the Freddie Mercury celebration at Wembley Arena is a curious thing, reflecting not just how much of a fixture Queen had become but how awkward it was to actually place them. On the one hand a bunch of hard rock and metal acts influenced by Queen, on the other a roll-call of British pop’s great and good, queueing up to try on Freddie’s stack heels.
George Michael’s turn is preserved here: he ringleads the remaining Queen members through “Somebody To Love” and “These Were The Days Of Our Lives”, and you also get three Queen-less cover versions from a recent tour. So it makes sense to look at this more as a George Michael record than anything much to do with Queen. This stuff dates from the zenith of the Respectable George phase, a public burial of the Wham! teenpop star. Michael’s need to be taken seriously could sometimes come off as chippy, but at the scale of international fame he was operating at grand gestures (calling your album Listen Without Prejudice) were probably needed. Even so this is the least exciting George Michael release yet.
Soulful singers who hit the arena tour level of success end up having to walk a tightrope between nuance and reach – the sound has to be big enough to fill the space, and that has implications for its intimacy. On this EP you can see Michael trying a few approaches to the problem. “Somebody To Love” enjoys the bigness, borrowing its phrasing from the original and trying to get the crowd involved. “Those Were The Days Of Our Lives” – pointlessly recast as a duet – tries to exploit the emotional power of stilling a huge audience. “Calling You” – very much a singer’s song, since it’s little but a repeated, agonised phrase – simply treats the space as empty: Michael’s projection of loneliness here gets deeper into me than anything else on the EP. As for the “Killer”/”Papa Was A Rolling Stone” mash-up, on paper it’s intriguing but in reality it’s mainly a recognition game, with progressively louder cheers as more people in the arena notice what’s going on. Michael doesn’t get the songs to talk to one another in any very resonant way, and he’s not helped by how plonking the “Killer” riff sounds, released from its claustrophobic studio home.
In fact, I’m left thinking this might have been a decent studio EP. The song choice – concealed loneliness, paranoia, regret, bittersweet reminiscence, and then loneliness again, naked this time – could have made it an interesting snapshot of George Michael at his most self-conscious and brooding. Instead it’s a picture of a good singer doing his best with the logistics of high-level stardom: what results is the very definition of worthy but dull.