'It's important to have style," says the grainy voice with the Cockney accent. "But the style shouldn't override what you do."
Boy George is on the line from London, chatting up This is What I Do, his first studio album in 18 years. This theory on substance over fashion sounds reasonable enough, until you remember it's coming from an androgynous extreme dresser who used to dream in red, gold and green and paint himself that way, too. A shocker of the first order, this most curious of Georges.
Born George Alan O'Dowd, he was the force and front man of the English popsters Culture Cub, a chart-topping troupe that rode its singer's singularity and a light-and-white reggae vibe to great exposure on radio and music-video television back in the day. George could (and still can) sing very well, but it was his anti-chameleon charisma – blending in was not his goal – and outlandish garb that won the day.
Still, what he's saying now shouldn't be dismissed as a self-serving soundbite. Listening to his strong new album, the first thing you notice is his voice.
He always did have an agreeably quivering tenor, but his eccentricity and antics are what are probably remembered more. At 52, the once hard-living singer – sober six years now – possesses a throat with a grainier timbre, attractively so. Add to that a poststorm lyrical bent and a pleasing musical package, and you have an album comparable to Marianne Faithfull's Broken English as a significant comeback disc.
"I've never been the kind of artist that tried to hold on to what I was," George says when asked about that long-lost decade of shiny music and wrong hair. "And that's been a point of frustration for the people who have worked with me."
Which is understandable enough. Culture Club scored six Top 10 singles in the early eighties. Who could blame a record label for wanting another Karma Chameleon? But it's not going to happen. "Because I can't," he says, almost apologetically. "It wouldn't work, you know, I wouldn't know where to start."
From wherever he chose to start, the return to form was not something that could have been predicted with any confidence. Drug addictions, arrests, jail terms and unfortunate tattoos were the mark of a deep career depression and a tumultuous personal life.
Many bands from the 1980s have been unable to escape the synth-and-shoulder-pad stigma. This week, George Michael released his first album in 10 years, but it's just a live orchestral reworking of his past hits. Most of us wouldn't recognize the Human League if we ran over them with our DeLorean. Corey Hart wears sunglasses in the hope that he goes unnoticed. And when M.C. Hammer says, "Can't touch this" now, there aren't enough 10-foot poles in the world with which to avoid doing so.
As for George's This is What I Do (released last fall in Britain, and out March 25 in North America), there's some looking back for an artist who describes himself as "progressively nostalgic." On the soulful, upsweeping King of Everything: "What's the word on the street? Have I lost my crown?" On the grand, Bowie-esque My God: "I had to get it wrong to get it right."
Mostly, however, the theme is redemption and looking forward. "You can't rewind," George croons breezily on the coconut-treed Live Your Life. Talking about the heady days, the former hit-maker is something other than wistful. "It was all great, and appropriate for when it happened, but at this point, I don't want to be the kind of artist I was in 1984."
Actually, it's possible no one else wants Boy George to be the artist he was in 1984. That was the year Culture Club released its third album, Waking Up With the House on Fire, which set off alarms and marked the beginning of the band's short, steep slide into irrelevance. After that, drugs happened and a successful solo career did not.
Fast-forward to 2006, when Boy George was sentenced to community service for a charge of falsely reporting a burglary. Tabloids ran photos of the disgraced former pop star sweeping up trash in New York. Orange, let's just say, was not his colour.
By 2008, things impossibly got uglier when he was found guilty of assaulting and falsely imprisoning a Norwegian male model, a transgression that would earn him a 15-month jail term. Twenty-five years earlier, he had sung on Karma Chameleon, "I'm a man without conviction," but he sure had a doozy on his rap sheet now.
Naturally, Boy George would prefer to forget that event. He's got other things on his mind, including an upcoming North American tour with his band. (As well, a Culture Club reunion is in the works.) The upcoming jaunt includes a concert at Toronto's Danforth Music Hall on April 24, the lone Canadian stop.
In the age of Gaga and spectacle shows, will Boy George go glitzy? Apparently not. "I've dressed up before, and I still do," he says, "But I've never really enjoyed shows that distracted by loads of dancers, acrobats and explosions. I want to hear someone perform."
A funny thing happened on his British tour last year: Fans, he says, were actually paying attention to what he and his band were were doing onstage, musically. "We were playing new material, which can be difficult for an audience," he says. "But they were really listening to us. That's different from back in the day, and thank God for that."
Not everyone is putting Boy George's past behind them, however. Last week, journalist Patrick Strudwick wrote a piece about the 2008 assault for The Independent newspaper, in which he criticized the "enthusiastic rehabilitation" of Boy George's reputation and the accompanying disregard for male victims of violence. When the article is brought up in our interview, Boy George pulls no punches. "Most people I know are really happy that I'm in a good place, but it feels like this guy has a personal reason to keep bringing this up," he says, simmering. "I went to jail, okay?"
The Do You Really Want to Hurt Me singer goes on to say that he doesn't want to give Strudwick any more publicity, and that no one else is even asking him about the conviction and jail stint. I was just about to mention that the silence over the assault is exactly the point the journalist was making, when Boy George's publicist cuts in on the call to shut down the interview.
In February, Boy George caused a minor uproar when he showed up on the red carpet at the Brit Awards in London sporting a shiner on his left eye. After much speculation over how the bloody blemish had happened, he explained that it was done with makeup, and that it represented his "fashion victim" status. So the rouge was a ruse.
The press had a field day; the consensus adjective used to describe the stunt was "tasteless," though "childish" would also do. You can take the singer out of the eighties, apparently, but you can't take the boy out of the Boy.