Faith

George Michael is a natural. Even as the pinup images of Wham! fade to gray, singles like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "Careless Whisper" remain indelible — they're virtually impossible to forget, whether you actually like them or not. Just twenty-four, Michael has emerged as one of pop music's leading artisans, a painstaking craftsman who combines a graceful knack for vocal hooks with an uncanny ability to ransack the past for musical ideas and still sound fresh.

Just a cursory spin of his official solo debut is enough to spell out blockbuster even in non-music-biz minds. It would be easy to dub George Michael the Elton John of the Eighties; too easy, because for all its craft and catchiness, Faith is grounded in a passion and personal commitment as palpable as the grinding bump beat of "I Want Your Sex." And with this album, George finally proves once and for all that he's no mere genius chart hack.

Unsurprisingly, Faith is the move toward adulthood, signaled by the conscientiously horny "I Want Your Sex." Sure, songs about drug abuse, abused wives, Thatcherism and the choice between monogamy and freelance lust are nothing new, but how many other current singer-songwriters can evoke a personal stake in their subject matter? One of Michael's secret weapons is his knowledge that the power and eloquence of soul music come from simply singing what you feel. And as Faith proves, he's got the equipment to render some relatively complex feelings.

Faith is not some cynical hit pack; it's a concept album of sorts. After the rockabilly shock of the title track kicks things off, each song segues neatly into the next. The disco groove varies from urban thump to slow tropical heat wave, but it doesn't let up until the very end. Key words, like faith, trust and understanding, pop up in song after song, and the issue of communication between lovers, and the lack thereof, is examined from numerous angles.

On "Look at Your Hands" a younger man expresses anger at his married ex-girlfriend's battered state. She's got "two fat children and a drunken man," and the singer's outrage comes as much from jealousy as from a sense of injustice: "You shoulda been my woman when you had the chance/Bet you don't/Bet you don't/Bet you don't/Like your life now." That nagging hook will undoubtedly haunt Hot Radio in the near future, as will the similarly insistent "ay-yi-yi-yi" chorus of "Monkey." An antidrug number, "Monkey" is not a lecture but rather an exasperated lover's question: "Do you love the monkey or do you love me?"

Faith is very much a George Michael showcase: he coproduced, wrote all the songs, plays many instruments and handles the lion's share of vocals, including a wide, weird range of backup voices. Yet his overriding respect for melody and his sense of restraint, as evidenced in the economical arrangements on Faith, as well as in his singing, are really quite remarkable in this Age of Ego.

Of course, George Michael is only human. Occasionally his ambitions outdistance his ability. Attempting the elegantly sweaty seduction number "Father Figure," he still sounds wet behind the ears; his voice isn't husky enough for the role. Marvin Gaye he's not. George Michael is much more convincing when he sings about the other end of such a relationship: "One More Try" is an undeniable, heart-wrenching teenage plea ("Teacher there are things/That I don't want to learn").

At times he's almost too good. The Stevie Wonder-ized second section of "I Want Your Sex" is livelier and more adventurous than the usual dance mix, but included on the album, it still seems like an indulgence. And the concluding number, a pseudo torch song called "Kissing a Fool," recalls one of Barry Manilow's forays down Memory Lane with painful accuracy. It's a sentimental dead end. But the rest of Faith displays Michael's intuitive understanding of pop music and his increasingly intelligent use of his power to communicate to an ever-growing audience.