Poor George Michael. One men’s room peccadillo with a plainclothes cop and a video trail of horrendous 1980s fashion disasters and everyone outside of the UK relegates you to the same dance ghetto where Boy George picks up his stipend. Sure, it’s a classy disco and everyone looks fantastic, but once the man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was on track to be the white Stevie Wonder. Scoff if you must, but the boy damned by Wham! and an almost toxic blondness pulled off a pop smart, intensely personal song cycle that rivals Wonder’s 1970s golden age.
After Faith, which sold 20 million copies, Michael decided to get serious. Despite being a mainstream craftsman in the tradition of Smokey Robinson and Neil Diamond, his years of churning out bubblegum had few convinced he was a serious artist. Fed up, Michael painstakingly assembled his sophomore solo release. Writing, arranging and producing everything, and drawing from his growing dissatisfaction with fame and genuine concern about the state of the world, Michael tried to do what his musical heroes had done – merge broad-based pop with substance. From the first time I tossed in a cassette and drove to L.A. with it on repeat the week it was released right up to this day, I contend it’s as good as the mainstream ever got.
Like most folks I’d dismissed George as a future trivia footnote. I’d hidden from Wham! in the safe folds of the Clash and Elvis Costello during high school and spurned the dismal pandering of solo singles like “I Want Your Sex” and “Faith”. I hated the look of him, too — the sculpted stubble, the salon-fresh hairdo, the faux vintage denim and leather. Then I heard “Freedom 90” and realized I might have been doing exactly what the title of his second album was asking me not to do.
A banging piece of dance-floor nitro, “Freedom 90” is an epic, unedited 6:30. Built from intricately layered percussion and Chic-slick guitars, Michael’s near perfect voice dissects the downside of fame with an incisive cheek we haven’t seen much outside of the Monkees’ Head. You can put this up against anything from Gwen Stefani, et al., today and it holds its own admirably. Sure, it’s hard to hear the rich and famous bitch about their “condition”, but not if they can do so with real insight: “When I knew which side my bread was buttered / I took the knife as well / Posing for another picture / Everybody’s got to sell / But when you shake your ass, they notice fast / And some mistakes were built to last.”
His ambivalence was intriguing and a far cry from anything we were hearing from Bell Biv Devoe, Wilson Phillips or any of the other chart toppers that year. That he did so while continuing to twirl under the bright lights in a fabulous outfit evoked Elton John’s early response to notoriety — look good, but say something when they stick a microphone in your face.
Delve into the album and you’ll find opener “Praying for Time”. Sure, it’s preachy but so was Stevie: “He’s Misstra Know It All” and “Big Brother” are not subtle, and neither is Michael’s stab at finger-pointing earnestness. What makes this dirge so effective is how he turns that finger on himself, confessing his own self-indulgent behavior in an age when “God stopped keeping score”.
Both this and “Freedom 90” were odd choices for the first two singles (though “Praying” went number one on both the US and UK charts), indications of how serious he was in his intention of being seen in a new light. That nonlogic dictated the videos as well: In the days when MTV built their programming around the cult of personality, Michael refused to appear in the videos for either track. The only photo of him on the album is a Jostens yearbook-style headshot buried in the liner notes. After peddling his ass shamelessly for almost a decade, he’d withdrawn almost completely from the spotlight.
Troubled love and an equally troubled world provide the thematic undercurrents beneath these 10 tracks (nine originals and a take on Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go”, from Fulfillingness’ First Finale). Combining his naturally great pipes with material that actually meant something to him produced a compelling mix of the sweet and sour. The finger-snapping skip of “Waiting for That Day” is followed by the Freudian field day of “Mothers Pride”, which focuses on a “solider waiting for a war” (an observation made all the creepier when Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990). The entire record sways between warm arms and empty hands, cold comfort and blissful memories.
Michael’s arrangements are typically a brassier version of what Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux are being rewarded for today. “Cowboys and Angels” is pure sophistication — swooning strings, torch-singer breathiness, standup bass, brushed drums and a pretty sax solo. “Heal the Pain” is Michael’s homage to Paul McCartney, and it nicely captures the breathless rush of Rubber Soul-era Beatles. The Stevie Wonder cover is stripped-back piano, omnipresent echo and multilayered Todd Rundgren-style vocals. It is, in a word, haunting.
Dug out of a dark hole of enormous unhappiness in the midst of huge success, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 never got a volume two. It’s a pity, because contemporary unease has rarely been captured better. At the height of his popularity he went out of his way to draw attention to the manufactured hollowness of the celebrity machine. It’s a series of gospel-inflected prayers for light and hope delivered by someone who had serious doubts that anyone was actually listening when he was down on his knees.