Has George Michael learned nothing as he's grown older? The British new wave star with the smooth, soulful voice and solid pop chops dribbles away his talent in an album of grimly slow-moving ballads and dorky dance-party disco straight out of Dullsville.
"Patience" is a baker's dozen of new songs that will struggle to find their place in the current pop landscape. The title number is a breathy piano ballad that only the hardiest fans will sit through. If it's a caution that a new, earnest George Michael is on tap, it's also misleading. What follows is unremittingly mid-tempo and irrelevant.
It's sad, because Michael still sounds fabulous. His voice is stronger and more supple than ever, but in the absence of beats, he sinks under the ostentatiously portentous pace.
He even seems to sing in the same key from song to song. The piano outro of "Patience" melts into the intro piano of "Amazing," a decent love song that's almost dancy. The walking pace of "Cars and Trains" drones into "Round Here," a musical stroll through the old neighborhood.
What's missing is the grand, gospelly choruses that burst from the center of his older songs, the disco delirium that powered even Michael's most suspect forays into social criticism. Maturity and taking a top spot in the scandal sheets seems to have driven the outgoing singer into a pit of nostalgia and earnestness, neither of which suits him. On "My Mother Had a Brother," he sings of a family suicide in such an over-the-top swoon it renders the sad story merely ridiculous. And "John and Elvis Are Dead" is a paean to Michael's betters whose subtext is best left untouched -- after all, if it's a crime that "Jesus Christ" allowed Lennon and Presley to pass from this Earth, the man lamenting that fact had better be ready to step up.
Michael wakes up somewhat for "Flawless (Go to the City)" in the middle of the disc. It's not as entirely pro-sex as it sounds on first listen -- finding the disco scene decadent now is a bit rich for a man who has already wrung it dry -- but it has a nice dance floor swirl and the layered Michael-chick singers-guy singers middle that packed the parquet in the 1980s.
And that's the trouble. Michael's best stuff here has a stale whiff. (Even the term "Flawless" is old-fashioned; flawless was the new fabulous years ago.) He employs the sound of falling rain from so many middling R&B ballads on "Precious Box"; the beats are synthetic and simplistic on every tune. The freedom to be an out gay pop star has only stymied his music -- "American Angel," an unabashed love song, is far duller than the ones he wrote when he was pretending to find supermodels hot. Only "Freeek!" brings a little something-something to the party, namely cold, menacing, industrial-rock percussion and a tricky shouted chorus, and when Michael edges close to the mike, his silky voice is so rich and powerful, it could make a grown Gen X-er cry.
At least he's still got his hair.