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Aug 13

GEORGE MICHAEL – “Jesus To A Child”

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#732, 20th January 1996

Jesus To A ChildWriting this post could have felt awkward. I have been very lucky: I’ve never had to face the premature loss of a loved one, and having never been tested by grief in that way I can’t fully grasp what George Michael was finding in himself to make “Jesus To A Child” after his lover’s death.

On the other hand, this is an exceptionally generous, welcoming record. If the “stages of grief” have any veracity – and as I say, I’m fortunate enough not to really know yet – then surely this is acceptance, or as close to it as the bereaved can ever come. However measured Michael’s performance is, in places it’s heartbreaking. But even as he sings “the lover I still miss” I don’t feel like a voyeur – this is his monument, a work Michael needs his public to hear. Even though few at the time knew the story behind it, the sincerity, and the will to somehow pass on something extraordinary and vanished, is palpable. It’s a heartfelt celebration of the effect love can have on a life, and it’s a songwriter consciously setting himself his hardest possible task, and achieving it.

It also sounds beautiful. “Jesus To A Child” is very long for a Number One, but the slow bossanova rhythms winding through it make it inviting, even beguiling, where more hymnal, stately chart-toppers are suffocating. The synth banks and high flutes could easily have sounded marbled and cold, but the rhythms divert that: this is the sound of something waking, allowing itself to feel again. So when Michael reaches the crux of this remarkable song – “the love we would have made, I’ll make it for two” – I believe him.

9

Comments

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  1. 1
    fivelongdays on 16 Aug 2013 #

    I’m not sure what to make of this song now – 13-year-old me thought it was incredibly boring – because on one hand George’s voice is fantastic, and knowing what the song is about gives it emotional oomph, but on the other hand, it still trudges on, and on, and on, and it sounds that little bit too smooth to have as much emotional oomph as it ought to. Oh, and did I mention it goes on, and on, and on, and on, and by the end you want George to plumb his depths, musically speaking, and deliver something that really hits home the message, but instead it mimbles and bimbles – smoothly – before ending suddenly about two or three minutes after it really should have?

    I think I’ll give it four. There’s only so much smooth bossa nova one man can take. Still in the top three Brazilian-themed singles of 1996. Probably.

  2. 2
    Tom on 16 Aug 2013 #

    When I started listening to the top pop hits of 96 I thought along those lines, but this is one that’s really opened itself up to me the more I’ve played it – the bossa gives it enough motion and flow to not bore me and let the melody sink in. I’m quite glad it doesn’t do anything too obvious.

  3. 3
    thefatgit on 16 Aug 2013 #

    I like a bit of bossa nova. Compare it to the slow waltz of “Cowboys And Angels” (also a bit long and a bit melancholy), you can see how finely polished his songwriting has become in the intervening years. “Cowboys…” was quite an angry song, but looking back, the Mister/Sister ambiguity seems a little jarring now. Long ballads of this quality don’t rub me up the wrong way at all, least of all JTAC, because it’s such a lush production. It feels almost wrong to luxuriate in his grief, but I suppose George has at least through this song communicated how utterly in love, and how comfortable with his deceased partner he had been. Take that feeling and apply it to a significant other of your choice, and if the worst happens and they leave, then George has provided a soothing salve for the pain in JTAC. Top marks there, George. If only he had not tortured himself so, but that’s perhaps for another discussion.

    One more thing: if it wasn’t for his legal battle with Sony, we’d probably have been discussing this song a couple of Popular years ago.

  4. 4
    swanstep on 16 Aug 2013 #

    I don’t care much for the track overall for mostly fivelongdays’ reasons, but I’d add that both the melody line and the instrumentation feels incredibly inert to me. So much so, in fact, that when the middle eight hits, delivering the crux of the song to which Tom draws attention, well, unless you’re paying very close attention, the movement in the melody is so small (and the arrangement so constant) that it’s easy to miss it. Anyhow, I was huge fan of Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss album in the ’90s; I guess I’d take most of its musings on death’s meanings over JTAC:
    5

  5. 5
    Kat but logged out innit on 16 Aug 2013 #

    Similar to #1 I found this pretty pedestrian at the time. I didn’t really listen to the lyrics at all past the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘child’ and as my relationship with religion was a bit ‘in flux’ at the time I thought the song’s meaning was best left unexamined. I do remember though finding out that George Michael owned a large stake in Capital Radio at the time, which explained a) why this got played three times an hour b) he was quite happy to ring up and talk to Chris Tarrant about it for SEEMINGLY HOURS instead of playing something ‘upbeat’, like Goldbug’s Whole Lotta Love, for instance.

    I much prefer ‘Different Corner’ to this.

  6. 6
    Izzy on 16 Aug 2013 #

    I loved this at the time, it was so smooth and lovely. It *is* long and inert, though, so much so that dipping in and out I can never tell whether I’m at the start of the song, near the end, or somewhere in the middle. No doubt there are subtleties in the arrangement that I’m not yet hearing – I never really picked up the bossa nova rhythmic sophistication, for example, but it’s right that its a big help in stopping the whole thing from being a drag.

    I also hadn’t realised how big he was ’til I went to Tunisia around this time and found the only three anglo-western artists on bootleg sale were George, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Now that’s big, especially when the album in question is an undisguised coming out. I still have my Sousse-issue cassette of Older somewhere.

    These were vintage times for number ones, in retrospect, and for adult contemporary. I’m not at all sure this’d’ve made the top in most other eras, even if George had already managed the trick with A Different Corner. (9)

  7. 7
    Tom on 16 Aug 2013 #

    I think the inertia works here very well – keeps it warm and solemn at the same time. The comparison that kept popping into my head was Lambchop, which doesn’t really work on any level other than pace and meanderingness.

    It probably should have got the same mark as ADC though, or ADC should have got the same mark as it – since my instinct is “oh I like that one even more”. And in fact in its review I see I said as much!

    The Pet Shop Boys went Brazilian a bit in ’96 too, with the hugely underpraised “Se A Vida E”, one of their corniest and loveliest singles.

  8. 8
    James BC on 16 Aug 2013 #

    How many times did George Michael need to stand up and say “Attention listeners. I have moved on, I have grown, and I am now a Serious Adult Artiste.” He did it with Careless Whisper, he did it with Freedom, and here he is again, doing it more emphatically than ever and calling the album Older just in case you didn’t get the point.

    Having been a bit young for George in his Listen Without Prejudice years I was mildly excited for his return because it was being built up on the Big Breakfast (with a running joke about Denise Van Outen’s GM obsession). At last I would get to hear music by this brilliant artist who had been denied us by inscrutable legal machinations for so long. I was a bit perplexed when he finally appeared and turned out to sound like this.

  9. 9
    glue_factory on 16 Aug 2013 #
  10. 10
    Billy Hicks on 16 Aug 2013 #

    So begins a couple of remarkable years where George Michael, after a few years away, became one of the biggest stars on the planet again. His solo chart positions for 1996-1998 are #1, #1, #2, #3, #2, #2 and #2, so it seems bizarre that we’ll only be seeing him once more in Popular. Almost all of it passed me by at the time except for a later 10 year old me enjoying ‘Outside’ despite having absolutely no idea what the song was about and just thinking he wanted to go outside in the sunshine, which seemed a perfectly normal request. Looking at the 6:50 running time I was slightly dreading listening to this (and being a bit surprised by Tom’s 9 rating) but from very early on I share its charms, very different to your average poppy #1 and fits in nicely with that cold winter of 1995-96. Definitely one to sit back and lose yourself into.

    In my first year of secondary school (2000), as part of Media Studies we watched a tape of Wham videos and absolutely pissed ourselves laughing at early “Heyyy everybody!” rapping George. Probably the funniest day of the term and the look/sound of 17 years ago then felt like another planet. Today 1996 is 17 years ago, which makes me wonder if pre-teens of 2013 would feel the same today if you showed them videos of the #1s we’ll be seeing soon…

  11. 11
    Rory on 16 Aug 2013 #

    I appreciate this more today than I would have in 1996, being this side of my late-’90s/early ’00s bossa nova fascination. I don’t even remember having heard it before my first listens this week, even though it was number one in Australia for a couple of weeks (at the same time as here). Maybe I did hear it, but its smooth noodlings bubbled under my attention threshold.

    But now I like it a good deal; one of his finer vocal performances, and now that I’m (a bit) older and slower myself it doesn’t feel too long. It has the edge on “A Different Corner”, which I gave a 7, and all that keeps me from going higher here is that I still feel no great urge to own this track or Older. Maybe that will change when we reach his next entry.

  12. 12
    Cumbrian on 16 Aug 2013 #

    This is so beautifully understated. Presumably the bossa-nova was a choice inspired by Anselmo Fellepa’s nationality and, as Tom points out, provides warmth synth washes can be very cold (for example, similar synth washes are used in Queen’s slower work on Innuendo and Made In Heaven and they do sound like a cloudless winter sky). George is also in good voice, sweet but matter of fact – far better than on A Different Corner, where he sounds to me quite breathy initially and mid-Atlantic and the instrumentation is nowhere near as warm. The length is not a problem for me – it’s a “here it is, this is how I feel, I’m going to tell it all and it will take as long as it takes”. A full, controlled expression of grief.

    In short, this is excellent. 9 seems right.

  13. 13
    anto on 16 Aug 2013 #

    re:8 Even stranger is how much he went in the opposite direction in the noughties – attempting political satire, embracing the hints of camp that were always in his persona, headline-grabbing party antics. I think the early Wham videos mentioned by Billy Hicks in #10 were actually one of the few times George has appeared comfortable in his own skin.

    Musically ‘Jesus To A Child’ is surely the apotheosis of the hushed vocal style which has proved hugely influential. It’s something which is rarely mentioned but even though George Michael is never quite rated as a great singer, he is certainly one who has connected with people.

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 16 Aug 2013 #

    looking at the personnel list for Older on Wikipedia confirms the problem I have with this track: there’s no drummer or percussionist listed (apart from GM himself), instead there’s programming. It’s the monotonous quality of the rhythm track that drags this down. The best bossa nova music IMO relies on the interplay between a few musicians and it’s the subtle variations in notes, beats and sounds that enriches the music. I find much of George Michael’s latter work over controlled and polished. This is no exception. It’s pleasant, accomplished and airless.

  15. 15
    mapman132 on 16 Aug 2013 #

    George Michael’s commercial peak by far in America was with the Faith album, which yielded an amazing four number one singles, and probably would have yielded a fifth if not for radio squeamishness over “I Want Your Sex”. Strange that none of them hit #1 in the UK, the US/UK chart dichotomy apparently in play once again. Michael’s chart fortunes started to wane after that, although he still had two additional #1’s, including the Elton John duet.

    By the time “Jesus To A Child” came out, after his long hiatus, many American fans had moved on. Album and single debuted at #6 and #7 on their respective charts, but went no higher. There seemed to be some debate in the music press as to whether these results marked a success after such a long hiatus, or a failure of a former superstar.

    Anyway, I sort of like the song, but it goes on way too long. I didn’t know the full story of what it was about until recently. It certainly does seem very heartfelt. I think I’ll go 6/10.

  16. 16
    thefatgit on 16 Aug 2013 #

    Lonepilgrim @14. You mention the need interplay between musicians for bossa nova to work, and what immediately sprang to mind was Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”, which is one of the earliest songs I think, to feature a drum machine. And yes, it was set to bossa nova.

    But your argument stands when musicians respond to each others rhythms to create something which has groove aplenty (thinking of Jobim/Gilberto especially).

  17. 17
    Tom on 16 Aug 2013 #

    Yeah, I’m not convinced “groove” is what he’s going for here. He’s grieving, but trying to move towards living again, so an essentially solo record with the bossa borrowings as a gesture to motion and life works for me emotionally.

  18. 18
    thefatgit on 16 Aug 2013 #

    Maybe “groove” was the wrong choice of word. What I was aiming for was a kind of accord between the rhythm and the emotion. Bossa is very sensual, and I’m guessing George wanted to use that sensuality as a means to accept what he had lost.

  19. 19
    James BC on 16 Aug 2013 #

    The lyrical idea about smiling like Jesus to a child is a strange one. People have different ideas about Jesus, and George’s (or the narrator’s) is far from clear, so it’s not obvious what the smile is supposed to be like. Nicely enigmatic, and appropriate to an intense love that can’t be understood by anyone but the people concerned.

    There’s also a parallel to be drawn with Wonderwall, also in the chart around this time. Both of them blur romantic love into quasi-religious salvation – a fertile area that goes back to Dante (so Noel ripping people off as usual).

  20. 20
    swanstep on 16 Aug 2013 #

    @19, James. The ‘smiling like J to a c’ idea seems to me to not work at all *unless* you know the backstory. If one has in mind that the beloved is dying but is seeing the singer cry and therefore tries to offer *him* solace/release *then* a beatific image of a saintly/beyond normal worldly cares and concerns figure makes sense (I’ve seen lots of AIDS-themed theater pieces over the years including Angels in America, that have versions of this primal scene: the saintly dying figure releasing the survivor to go on with his life, etc.). I didn’t know any of the backstory back whenever I first heard the song in the ’90s, so was just puzzled by the image.

  21. 21
    ciaran on 16 Aug 2013 #

    In a similar way to Michael Jackson before him, the return of GM was quite a big event for me. Not that I was a die-hard fan or anything but nonetheless I was a fan and from first discovering pop music GM was one of the gigantic stars so it was interesting to hear from him again.

    I didnt share the same enthusiasm when I heard this.Freedom/Too Funky it wasnt to my 13 year old self in 96.The only thing I have a vague recollection of now is nicky campbell previewing this on totp with a guitar covering his naked body in response to the video or something along those lines.

    The ballad didnt quite fit in with the britpop,rap, dance boom of the time (before and after) so it was a bit of a disappointment.Not to mention the length of the thing.It was still a good performance from GM i felt.The run of ballads by GM wannabes is something that plagues this popular year in the spotlight.

    Having played this in 2013 it actually sounds pretty good now. A 3 or a 4 in 96 is now a 7 or 8 today though still a bit long.Much better than a different corner but not the powerhouse that is careless whisper.

    Job well done george. See you soon.

  22. 22
    lonepilgrim on 17 Aug 2013 #

    tfg @ 16 I take your point – I don’t dislike drum machines or programming for that matter. I just don’t care for their use here where they seem to dominate the arrangement in a way that works against the song for me. Everything seems smoothed out in a way that ‘Why cant we live together’ (or ‘Family Affair’ or ‘Tower of Song’) don’t.

  23. 23
    Mark G on 17 Aug 2013 #

    Hmm.. The “Story” is right there in the song!

    Also, I did think “Surely now everyone will realise he is gay now?” but no, lyrical content such as this can make people switch off their comprehension and ‘enjoy the performance’ without pre (or post) judice.

    So, more songs with more girls in the video, less of George, until ‘fate’ took over, or something.

  24. 24
    Alfred on 18 Aug 2013 #

    I hate Michael’s hair and goatee during this period: he looked like a lecherous bartender in a gay bar.

    This period fascinates me too. Older did middling business in the States but you’d still think he was a massive superstar from the response in the rest of the world.

  25. 25
    wichita lineman on 20 Aug 2013 #

    Now! watch: This opened Disc 2 of Now 34, which I think was the only way you could buy JTAC on vinyl.

    It mixes up genres a lot more than imminent Nows, with a classic Britpop one-two after JTAC, some American Rock (ooh yeah) from Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams, post-grunge ballache from Joan Osbourne, and whatever the heck How Bizarre was meant to be.

    The presence of Space suggests Britpop’s phase three – its terminal phase – has arrived. Blimey, that came and went faster than I expected.

    (note: Disc One includes three currently bunnied tracks)

    George Michael : “Jesus to a Child”
    Oasis : “Wonderwall”
    The Bluetones : “Slight Return”
    Paul Weller : “Peacock Suit”
    Bon Jovi : “Hey God”
    Bryan Adams : “The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me Is You”
    Belinda Carlisle : “In Too Deep”
    Suggs : “Cecilia”
    Blur : “Charmless Man”
    Suede : “Trash”
    Joan Osborne : “One of Us”
    Crowded House : “Instinct”
    Lighthouse Family : “Ocean Drive”
    Tina Turner : “On Silent Wings”
    Everything But The Girl : “Wrong”
    OMC : “How Bizarre”
    OMD : “Walking on the Milky Way”
    Space : “Female of the Species”
    Cast : “Walkaway”
    Boyzone : “Coming Home Now”

  26. 26
    wichitalineman on 20 Aug 2013 #

    Now! watch: This opened Disc 2 of Now 34, which I think was the only way you could buy JTAC on vinyl.

    It mixes up genres a lot more than imminent Nows, with a classic Britpop one-two after JTAC, some American Rock (ooh yeah) from Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams, post-grunge ballache from Joan Osbourne, and whatever the heck How Bizarre was meant to be.

    The presence of Space suggests Britpop’s phase three – its terminal phase – has arrived. Blimey, that came and went faster than I expected.

    (note: Disc One includes three currently bunnied tracks)

    George Michael : “Jesus to a Child”
    Oasis : “Wonderwall”
    The Bluetones : “Slight Return”
    Paul Weller : “Peacock Suit”
    Bon Jovi : “Hey God”
    Bryan Adams : “The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me Is You”
    Belinda Carlisle : “In Too Deep”
    Suggs : “Cecilia”
    Blur : “Charmless Man”
    Suede : “Trash”
    Joan Osborne : “One of Us”
    Crowded House : “Instinct”
    Lighthouse Family : “Ocean Drive”
    Tina Turner : “On Silent Wings”
    Everything But The Girl : “Wrong”
    OMC : “How Bizarre”
    OMD : “Walking on the Milky Way”
    Space : “Female of the Species”
    Cast : “Walkaway”
    Boyzone : “Coming Home Now”

  27. 27
    Steve Mannion on 20 Aug 2013 #

    I still like ‘Female Of The Species’ but I do not believe there is any other Space song even a tenth as tolerable. I can never forgive Joan Osborne for that last line on ‘One Of Us’ – “nobody calling on the phone…’cept for the Pope maybe *oh-no-got-to-squeeze-this-really-clever rhyme-in-before-the-end-of-the-bar* IN ROME.”

  28. 28
    Izzy on 20 Aug 2013 #

    I like how they’ve put OMC and OMD together

  29. 29
    thefatgit on 20 Aug 2013 #

    “How Bizarre” with the Spanish Harlem-ish guitar and deadpan rap-thingy?

    Don’t remember it at all.

  30. 30
    Chelovek na lune on 20 Aug 2013 #

    Don’t have anything to add about this. It’s beautiful and moving, and not too long at all.

    Like the bunnied follow-up (and unlike Babylon Zoo), it was very big indeed in Ukraine.

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