Boy George’s solo career, launched in the wake of Culture Club, didn’t get off to a good start: Sold is overblown and forgettable, possessing none of the flair his former band once had. The album’s dubious high point is an absurd reggaefied version of Bread’s “Everything I Own,” modeled after Ken Boothe’s mid-’70s interpretation. The former George O’Dowd’s next American album, stitched together from two overseas releases (one of which didn’t even come out in England), appeared as High Hat: slick, assembly-line R&B without a shred of personality. For a performer who built a huge career on stylized outrage, such musical anonymity is amazing.
The Martyr Mantras, a dance-oriented remix compilation of non-LP singles and newer tracks recorded with a variety of producers (including one collaboration with ex-Culture Clubber Jon Moss), is a significant improvement. Though most of the material is more functional than inspired, the uncluttered extended settings allow George to deliver some genuinely soulful vocal performances, particularly on the social-activist disco number “Generations of Love” (included in two versions) and the ballad “One on One.” Showing a little political awareness, “No Clause 28” is an effectively good-humored anti-oppression rant.
Released to take advantage of the singer’s 1992 commercial rebirth via a Pet Shop Boys-produced version of “The Crying Game,” At Worst retraces his steps, from 1982’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” through the The Martyr Mantras and beyond: 1993’s “Love Hurts” (not the Everly Brothers classic) and PM Dawn’s George-sung “More Than Likely” (from the duo’s Bliss Album). Whether or not there’s much evidence of creative progress here, that cushy voice remains easy on the ears, and the degree of craft and cozy warmth stays high even when the choice or design of the material falters. Summarizing an era subject to extreme degrees of personal trouble and strife (chronicled in a 1995 autobiography, Take It Like a Man), At Worst is an impressively even-tempered report.
No such description suits Cheapness and Beauty, Boy George’s shameless, conflicted and semi-cool rock album. Backed on about half the songs by a speeding guitar/synths-charged quartet produced to a fine Billy Idol-like roar by Jessica Corcoran, George’s strong voice is almost undistinguishable as the soulful crooner of yore. Elsewhere, a more temperate tone prevails, and there are acoustic numbers, straight pop and even an orchestral extravaganza. Separated by phone messages and spoken-word scraps, and making frequent reference to drugs and addiction, the songs run the gamut of George’s obsessions. He proffers rough self-analysis (“God Don’t Hold a Grudge,” “I’l Adore,” the string-y “If I Could Fly”), expresses difficult devotion (“Your Love Is What I Am,” the restrained “Cheapness & Beauty”) and gay pride (the folky “Same Thing in Reverse”), and indulges mean-spirited vendettas. The sadistically gloating “Sad” and the touchingly acoustic but bitter “Unfinished Business” are clearly meant to injure guilty parties, but it’s difficult to be sure diatribes like “Satan’s Child” (“You’re sick and you’re twisted/Irreverent, so beautiful”) aren’t about his nibs.