Among the distinctions he has gathered along the slick road to pop superstardom, George Michael found himself the object of a funny Saturday Night Live skit a while back, when Dana Carvey lampooned the famous hip shakes in Michael's "Faith" video. It was a parody that stuck. Picking up his Grammy for Faith, which sold 15 million copies, Michael tried to be a sport about it — and about the idea that his videos and his ubiquitous butt had rendered his recordings moot. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 (Vol. 2, said to be more dance oriented, will follow next June) is designed to turn this impression around. For the most part the album succeeds in its effort to establish Michael's seriousness and deliver him from caricature.
"Everybody's got to sell/But when you shake your ass/They notice fast," Michael sings on "Freedom 90." This is a far cry from the George Michael who, with sidekick Andrew Ridgeley, unabashedly titled a Wham! album Make It Big and scored a Number One U.S. single in 1985 with "Careless Whisper," a danceable ballad dying to sound soulful. By the time he released Faith, in 1987, Michael seemed to want more from his music than just sales. So, for his crisp productions of "Faith" and "Father Figure," for example, he concocted silken rockabilly riffs and very simple, effective Middle Eastern bridges in such a way that both white and black kids couldn't miss — or resist — them.
He was a pop-craft natural, even though memories of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" — Wham!'s first U.S. smash hit and a savage test of one's sense of humor — clung to Faith, as well as to the hit "I Want Your Sex," his provocateur move. Even if his strong, smooth voice sometimes seemed as concerned with set decoration as with the dramatic situations in his songs, Michael proved on his first solo album that he could write and produce music — specifically, a deceptively simple kind of professional, hummable pop.
Michael, like Lionel Richie, has a definitive Eighties pop sensibility — Sixties-style virtuosity or Seventies studio obsessiveness isn't for him — and on Listen Without Prejudice he broadens and refines it. With his opening songs — "Praying for Time," the lead single and a distraught look at the world's astounding woundedness, and "Freedom 90," which buoys dance beats with revitalizing gospel choruses — Michael challenges and shares confessional secrets with his audience.
In "Praying for Time," testifying against slow descending chords, Michael offers the healing passage of time as the only balm for physical and emotional hunger, poverty, hypocrisy and hatred. In "Freedom 90," as the accumulation of syncopated accents signals compulsion as much as it spices the groove, Michael wonders whether, in the past, "it was enough for me/To win the race?/A prettier face/Brand new clothes and a big fat place/On your rock and roll TV." The tune, in which Michael eventually asserts that "today the way I play the game is not the same," tumbles out as the dramatic shoptalk of a pop idol ready to trade in his sunglasses for some manner of rock & roll respect.
The rest of Listen Without Prejudice demonstrates exactly what Michael has in mind. Although his bigger ballads, like "Mothers Pride," a portrayal of sons perpetually learning the ways of war from their fathers, and a live, churchy version of Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go When I Go," push too hard for momentousness, Michael shines when he puts his new attitude into more modest practice. "Cowboys and Angels," a dreamy, if blue, romantic affair that glides along on international rhythms, and "Soul Free," an uptempo groove that uses Motown woodwinds, are as seamless, balanced and complete in themselves as Michael wants them to be. This is also true of his singing on the album, at its best. When, to a straightforward bass line and simple guitar strumming, Michael assumes the passion of Bono and engages the hypnotic melody of "Waiting for That Day" — a song with a brokenhearted narrator who finds that his memory serves him "far too well" — he fashions just the kind of bold pop with rock and soul overtones that Listen Without Prejudice aims for.
And that Michael now seems completely committed to. This time around, George Michael has begun to think that he should provide something to his fans beyond fun and games. Fun and games at Michael's level needn't be underrated — as he sings on "Freedom 90," such stratagems happened to yield a captivating sound for millions of people who like to listen to the radio. On this anxiously titled album, though, he's operating from the proposition that a damn good sound is only the starting point for how much pop music can achieve. If Listen Without Prejudice starts a trend among Michael's pop generation to move beyond image to integrity, it could make "rock and roll TV" sound more consistently and convincingly like music.