In honor of the 30th anniversary of George Michael’s blockbuster solo debut LP Faith, celebrated this Oct. 30, Billboard asked six writers to pen essays about the album’s six classic smash hits — all of which peaked in the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, and all of which showcase a different shade of Michael’s singular brilliance. Here, Stephen Thomas Erlewine takes on the album’s fourth hit single, the towering torch song “One More Try.”
“One More Try” appeared as a single deep into Faith‘s landmark run. It was the fourth single pulled from the album — fifth, if you count the club-centric, video-less “Hard Day” — which is appropriate: It’s a weary, sad ballad, the kind song that bears the scars of experience.
It’s not a single that can function as an introduction — with Mariah Carey covering it in 2014 precisely because it allowed her to display her full vocal range. While the song lends itself to such pyrotechnics, that octave-scaling isn’t the reason why Elton John claimed on a commemorative George Michael radio show that he doesn’t “get jealous of many songs, but I’m jealous of this song. I’d love to have written this.”
John isn’t a flashy singer, so he wasn’t drawn to the showboating possibilities within “One More Try” — possibilities, it has to be said, Michael seized on his original version. As a vocal performance, “One More Try” may be his best on record, a textbook example of how soul can often be a matter of control. Michael builds his his performance, keeping himself in check throughout most of the song and letting loose at crucial points, moments that accentuate the meaning of his lyric.
Rather, it’s easy to assume that John admired the deliberative nature of the song, how it’s so slow it almost seems still. Part of its serenity centers on the omnipresent organ, a keyboard designed to evoke the church but not rooted in blues changes. The organ hangs suspended in midair, following the chords so subtly it doesn’t appear to actual shift tonalities — an illusion that made the record feel modern, as it’s not terribly far from how his British contemporaries embraced synthesizers as a form of aural color.
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Such unspoken connections lends “One More Try” its considerable power. Perhaps its foundation is reconstituted soul-gospel, but it’s not old-fashioned, not attempting to be a re-creation of a style Michael never experienced firsthand. He’s interpolating sounds he’s loved at a distance, bending them to suit his perspective, and that’s why the song is extraordinary. Each of the three previous Faith hits placed a premium on confidence — “I Want Your Sex” celebrated carnality, “Faith” flipped rock & roll tradition with a camp flair, “Father Figure” was seduction incarnate — but “One More Try” found Michael embracing vulnerability, an emotion he touched upon in 1986 single “A Different Corner” but deepens here.
That vulnerability is the key to “One More Try,” a song about a boy who has been spurned by an older lover — a pain so great, he considers opting out of romance altogether. But by the end of the song, he decides to give romance one more try, uttering the song’s titular phrase for the first time. This isn’t a showman’s trick: the song is melodic but essentially chorus-less, circling around the same chords and motifs, mirroring Michael’s “teacher” obsession. This mournful meditation means that the glimmer of hope at the song’s conclusion, in the form of the long-delayed title phrase, is an unexpected denouement — a moment where the singer decides that maybe love is worth risking it all once again.
Nothing prior to this closing line suggests that he’s willing to open himself up again, and that’s what makes the record land with such impact: its optimism is hard-earned, surfacing through the fog of his heavy heartbreak. With these complex emotions, “One More Try” could never have been the lead single from Faith, or even the second: It’s a record that benefits from context, playing like a response to its sexy, assured predecessors.
Yet it’s also a record that becomes towering when removed from the white-hot success of Faith. Once “One More Try” is heard on its own — not surrounded by other hits — its austere ache and intimacy are heightened so dramatically, it almost seems like the listener is eavesdropping on the singer’s private pain. As a recording, George Michael never bettered it.