Although it's parent album was Wham!'s 'Make It Big', George Michael obviously thought enough of 'Careless Whisper' to justify its relase as a solo single under his own name. In hindsight, it's easy to see why; far less poppy, far less bouncy and far more brooding and 'grown up' sounding, 'Careless Whisper' distanced itself from the rest of the Wham! oeuvre and pointed the way to the solo career that Michael would shortly embark on.
And right enough, it doesn't sound much like Wham! Whatever else Michael's previous hits may have had, they never had any prominent saxophone riffs, and the one thing everyone remembers about 'Careless Whisper' is the riff that opens it and then re-appears throughout at the end of each chorus. It's as memorable and distinctive as Raphael Ravenscroft's work on Gerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street' and serves as a stement of intent that everything has gone AOR. But while Ravenscroft was allowed an almost free jazz blowout in the course of his song, the riff in 'Careless Whisper' is mechanically repeated note for note as if it were on a loop, making it's appearance rather monotonous and less of a joy after the intro.
And that, in truth, can be taken as a general criticism of the song as a whole. Yes, it is a far more mature and 'grown up' sound than anything previously offered up by Wham!, but in attempting to put clear water between this and the bubblegum of 'Bad Boys', 'Careless Whisper's soul lite sounds fussy, plastic and overproduced to the point of blandness; it's as if Michael was too afraid or unsure of his talent to 'let go' and swing out on a genuine limb for fear of putting a foot wrong and sabotaging a solo career that he was determined to be taken seriously in.
Vocally it's all there, as good as Michael has ever produced, but the backing music is a playsafe blend of muted bass notes and echoed percussion that would sound more at home in a hotel lift than supporting a genuinely heartfelt lyric that ends up being smothered rather than carried. And against such a smooth palette, the saxophone bursts sound out of place and end up jarring rather than invigorating.
'Careless Whisper' is a solid enough song that sticks out in the Wham! canon like Chandler's tarantula on a fairy cake. Solid, but it's one that doesn't warrant the 'classic' status that posterity has awarded it. It may have been a bold step into the future for George Michael in 1984, but in truth the history of soul music is littered with similar sounding, far more worthy tracks that were granted neither the fame or fortune afforded to this one.