I don’t usually write reviews on here. However, the amount of nonsense I’ve read, and listened to on the radio, about the new George Michael single, True Faith, suggests to me there’s a more than a little groupthink going on out there among the great unwashed. While it’s pretty hilarious to see so many idiots revealing their lack of musical credibility; and even funnier to see people actually geting upset/annoyed by this record, I do think there’s a need for an at least slightly intelligent review.
Two caveats before we start, though. First, I’m not saying you have to like the record. Ultimately, you either like or dislike a piece of music for a whole range of reasons. So, if you disagree with me, that’s cool. Second, if you haven’t heard a high-quality version of this record, played on a music system that can reveal lots of detail in a recording, please don’t tell me you don’t like it, ‘cos honestly, you haven’t heard it properly. Right, then – with that said, off we go…
Why Cover True Faith?
True Faith, was originally written and performed by the British band, New Order and released in 1987 when it reached #4 in the charts. If you don’t know the original, please go listen to it, it’s a great record. George Michael’s new version is about as different as you can get to the original. In a world of karaoke cover versions performed on shows such as American Idol and X Factor, it’s easy to forget (and in fact, it’s obvious that many people don’t even understand this) that, artistically, there’s really very little point in doing a version of someone else’s song that is anything other than completely different to the original.
When I say the new version is completely different to the original, by the way, I don’t mean the trite, “You made that song your own” comments that the judges on reality shows are so fond of making, usually in response to a straight-up karaoke performance. Rather, I mean, that George Michael has done something genuinely new, and artistically interesting with the song. Not only does the new record have a different tempo to the original – it’s been slowed down, and made into a ballad; but also George has drawn out of himself a characteristically authentic performance.
Why is the performance so authentic? Well despite it being a cover, recording True Faith is, perhaps, the perfect “comeback” record after a recent turbulent period in his personal life. George has said he didn’t want to write a song about prison – possibly because it just doesn’t seem like all that interesting an idea. However, True Faith is a song about drug addiction, and given the root cause of George’s recent problems – problems that led to jail – was substance abuse, both prescription medication and illegal drugs, it seems a fitting song to sing.
There’s a little more to the story, though. On the day he came out of prison, George Michael arrived home and put VH-1 on the TV. One of the first songs that came on was New Order’s True Faith. Now, George Michael is a long-term fan of New Order’s, and before that Joy Division’s, music. Still, he’d never really thought before what True Faith was about, and when it struck him as he listened that the song was about drug addiction, he thought there was a story in the lyric that resonated with his own experiences.
The bottom line then, is that there’s a reason George Michael chose to cover True Faith, and a reason why he made it the first record he released after being errr… released.
About The Music
With the background to the record understood, what about the music itself? Let’s start with the backing track, given that’s probably a little less controversial than the vocal. One thing you may not notice if you don’t listen closely, is just how musically accomplished the performances on the backing track are. It’s played by the band he’s spent the last few years touring with, and it is a seriously talented group of musicians. Now, I don’t know if they’ve gotten used to playing together, or if they’ve got used to being able to understand what George is looking for in a performance, or if there was some special way they were recorded, but it really sounds incredibly beautiful. If you take the trouble to listen, each musician is doing something amazing in what they’re playing, from the percussion to the acoustic and electric guitars to the keyboards. But what really makes it special, is the interplay between the members of band, as they’re each doing their own thing, but also ensuring the dynamics of their individual parts fit together perfectly.
By any standard, this is one of the best backing tracks of any George Michael record. It’s certainly one of my favorites, and it’s raised the bar for his “live band” backing tracks from his similarly conceived arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Edith And The Kingpin that he recorded a while back, but released recently as a track on his Christmas single, December Song.
About The Vocal
Now, to “that vocal”. To say this is controversial is an understatement. To be honest, I’m shocked by the ignorance of the reaction. Typical views put forth by people that think they know something about music, indeed make their livings by writing/talking about music, are along the lines of, “He’s dialled the Auto-Tune up to 11! Why? That’s for people that can’t sing.” or “He’s clearly just used Auto-Tune because he thinks it’s hip”.
Well, let’s get one thing straight first – there is no Auto-Tuning of the vocals in sight on this record. None. Zero. For the processing of the vocals, George used a TC Helicon product, which is nothing to do with Auto-Tune. Now, TC Helicon do offer options for what they call “hard-tuning” on vocals (their equivalent of Auto-Tuning, but with a couple of extra tuning features). However, George turned off this option. So, not only is there no auto-tuning here, there is no TC Helicon hard-tuning either.
Instead, what George’s has done is apply a kind of vocoder/talk box effect on the vocals… you know (or perhaps you don’t) – the kind of electronic harmonizing effects that have been used by some of the greatest singers the world has ever produced… for decades. People like, say, Stevie Wonder. This is just nothing to do with “rappers that can’t sing”. Artists like Stevie Wonder and George Michael don’t use these effects for anything other than the reason that they love the sound. And it’s fine if you don’t love the sound; but you know, being among the best, most successful singers around, these guys do know actually know a thing or two about singing. So, if they see something artistically interesting and beautiful to listen to in this technology, simply dismissing what they do out of hand seems a little… I dunno… unintelligent…
What of the actual vocal performance itself? Well, if you ever wanted to hear a musically stylish George Michael vocal, this is a great example. It’s clear just how proud George is of the vocal here, because if you listen closely to the record it’s pretty clear it’s mostly just one take. George Michael almost never does that, agonizing over the finest details of every word in the studio. Here, though, George has left the mistakes in, presumably because he rated this particular performance so highly. It’s something special.
Along with many people that are fans of George’s voice, I’d be interested in hearing a version without the electronic effects on the vocal, just to see what it sounds like. However, if George thinks the vocal sounds better with the electronic processing in place (he’s heard it without, obviously!), I’ll take his word for it. As it is, the effects create a kind of “sound picture” of drug use that fits beautifully with the lyric.
For Those That Don’t Like The Record
Maybe, though, you still can’t get past the fact that the record isn’t like the original. If that’s the case, perhaps you should watch a bit less American Idol or a bit less X-Factor because it may have dulled your brain and affected your ability to recognize a great record when you hear one. Still, there’s one one more chance to see if you really don’t like it, or if you just can’t cope with True Faith being a ballad. Here’s a more dancey version in a remix made by a George Michael fan which works really well.
The Bottom Line
George Michael’s version of True Faith is dripping with intelligent musicality. You can like it or dislike it; but I’m sorry, if you just dismissed this record out of hand as crap or unlistenable… if you think that electronic processing of vocals was first done by Cher and popularized by rappers that can’t sing, and George is just copying that… well, you might have to face the fact you don’t know as much about music as you think you do. The truth is – True Faith is George Michael’s best single in a long, long time. It deserves to be a bigger hit than it’s probably going to be…