Happy 15th Anniversary to George Michael’s fifth & final studio album Patience, originally released March 15, 2004.
Issued in November 1998, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael was the distillation of George Michael’s (then) sixteen year-long trek through popular music. Released one month ahead of this prolific compilation, “Outside” was more than just the first single for the collection, it pointed to a larger inflection point for the artist.
Its shimmering retro-disco surface belied incendiary, if humorous lyrics that addressed a legal fiasco with the Los Angeles Police Department from earlier that same year that outed the singer to the world. Accused of engaging in a “lewd sexual act” in Will Rogers Memorial Park on April 7, 1998, the vocalist was taken into custody and later made to perform community service. What could have been a career-damning event instead became a catalyst to let Michael tell his truth and silence the rumors that had hounded him since the outset of his recording career in 1982.
Strikingly, on past albums, Michael’s sexual orientation was assuredly present in the songwriting. Older (1996) was for all intents and purposes his “coming out” project before the actual unceremonious event transpired two years on. Still, Michael shrewdly shaped those songs in such a way that the heterosexual sect of his base would have to actively commit to a deeper analysis of his music; for the LGBTQ portion of Michael’s base, the writing had been on the wall for some time. Post-“Outside,” Michael was now free to live and create openly as a gay man.
Patience, Michael’s fifth and final studio album of original material, saw the singer, writer, and producer find benefit and burden in this new reality. Michael did not rush headlong into the recording process for Patience though. Instead, he first cleared his aural palate with a stylish set of covers with Songs from the Last Century (1999). Produced by the singer in cooperation with the late great Phil Ramone, Michael donned the time-honored tradition of the interpreter with his renditions of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” “You’ve Changed” and “Wild is the Wind,” among other classic compositions. Greeted with solid commercial fortunes and mixed critical notices, Songs from the Last Century served its purpose in allowing Michael to creatively recharge prior to the start of sessions for Patience.
Per usual, Patience is primarily self-contained with the writing, arranging, composing and production coming from Michael. Only a minor network of collaborative associations is called into action as needed; notably, Johnny Douglas returned to his friend’s side to co-produce and co-write sparingly.
The singles “Freeek!” and “Shoot the Dog” impacted internationally on March 18 and July 29, 2002 respectively; America remained the sole territory excluded from a commercial release for the pair. An aggressive one-two punch of dense, danceable pop-soul that lyrically vended in sexual and social political themes, the two tracks placed respectfully on several global charts. The newfound edge heard on “Freeek!” and “Shoot the Dog” was a portent to the mindset Michael operated in during the drafting processes for Patience.
The record’s title graciously acknowledges the nearly eight-year gap between Older and Patience—but it was time well spent. Of the thirteen entries spanning the album—all of them based in a rich spread of R&B-pop, jazz and dance sonics—at least seven are explicitly autobiographical. Specifically, Michael details his relationships past (“Please Send Me Someone (Anselmo’s Song)”) and present (“Amazing,” “American Angel”), while familial exploration (“My Mother Had a Brother”) and existential curiosity (“Patience,” “Through”) also weigh on his mind.
The remaining six songs are narrative-led, their stories drawn from the experiences of others—either real or imagined—that occasionally dovetail into Michael’s own life. Excess is chastised on “Cars and Trains,” the heavy tale of self-suicide on “John and Elvis Are Dead” eerily investigated and on “Flawless (Go to the City),” the centerpiece of the album, gay club culture is exalted.
As with all the surrounding music on Patience, “Flawless (Go to the City)” is absurdly accomplished, but the funk is bit more decadent and layered on this number. Michael constructs a semi-revised take on “Flawless” by electro-pop outfit The Ones who in turn had mined Gary’s Gang’s 1978 charter “Keep on Dancin’.” Lyrically, Michael elevates the escapist-transformative virtues of queer nightlife and invites non-queer identified individuals along for the ride. But, it’s implied without being said that queerness is the rule on “Flawless (Go to the City)” and Michael never sidelines that energy for the comfort of heteronormative perspectives. Taken in its complex entirety, Patience is a study in emotional extremes that grants fascinating access to Michael’s peripatetic moods: romantic, disconsolate, celebratory, fatigued.
Having completed a healthy label run of business with DreamWorks, Virgin and Polydor Records from 1996 up through to 2002, Michael shockingly returned home to Epic/Sony for the launch of Patience. With much of the bad blood between Michael and Epic/Sony having seemingly dissipated, the two parties aligned to give what the singer was citing as his swansong a proper roll-out.
Unveiled in mid-March 2004 internationally, Patience was a requisite George Michael blockbuster. The only place where the album posted modest sales was in the United States where it was released two months later; the American pressing of the long player also saw “Shoot the Dog” excluded from its tracklisting due to its politically seditious tone. Alongside “Freeek!” and “Shoot the Dog,” Patience yielded four other singles in “Amazing,” “Flawless (Go to the City),” “Round Here” and “John and Elvis Are Dead.” Reviews praised Michael’s still-immaculate abilities as a musician and vocalist, but the somewhat darker songwriting proved harder to digest for a music press hungry for “lighter” Michael fare. Michael showed no concern for those complaints.
Since Michael’s death three years ago, his entire canon has taken on an understandably deeper meaning. Having dedicated himself to his craft in the service of soundtracking our lives, George Michael wasn’t always able to be his authentic self. With Patience, Michael finally allowed himself the right to thrive (and struggle) as a human being, and it makes for a bittersweet, resonant listen.