George Michael
Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1
(Columbia 46898)

Now that the 90s are over and George Michael has used every possible opportunity to alienate his mass audience, it seems germane to return to his grand mission statement from 1990, the extraordinarily underrated Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. At the time, the album was George's plea to be taken seriously as an artist after several years on the pop culture radar as a fruity ass-shakin' bubblegum singer.

Few albums have so boldly attempted to redefine an artist's persona (Paint America Love by Lou Christie springs to mind, as it always does, and Janet. by Miss Jackson), and this one goes well out of its way to dazzle and delight. Lyrically, it's very direct, in several songs addressing the very issue of George's desire to be given another chance at being a real artist. Personally, I'd say he needn't have worried, and in fact he's pleading so despondently in parts that it's a bit comical. I mean, I don't think anyone really ever labeled him as strictly as he seems to think he was labeled.

Faith was a great record, and not pure teen pap, so exactly what made him think he was so needing to beg for table scraps of respect? Certainly he'd be in far more of a position to do that nowadays, and even now he's taken seriously as an artist (except on the Jay Leno show of course).

History will erase all the details, and this album will stand as one of the best to have come out of a pretty lousy decade for pop music. To me, it's the album on which George Michael's career hinges, easily the most interesting, and if not the most successful, definitely the most fully great.

I am probably one of the few people who remain a bit pissed that Vol. 2 never came out – in fact, now would be as good a time as any for George to release that one. Go back to the acoustic-based vibe and emotional directness of this album and sum up the last ten weird years for us all. Of course, that won't happen, and he'll continue to release album after album of pleasant, smooth, unsticky music. So we'll return to this one. The songs are great, the sound is awesome, and as a performance it's truly a stunner.

That he managed to get a hit single off it is impressive ("Freedom 90"), but more impressive is that it's not nearly the best song on the album, and additionally, it fits crucially well into the flow and theme of the album. "Waiting For That Day" and "Waiting (Reprise)" are the real standouts for me, about as unexpected from George Michael as could be in 1990, and still in a class by themselves ten years on. Every artist should at some point just sit down with an acoustic guitar and see what comes out. These songs really form the emotional thrust of the album, and remain a real pleasure to hear.

Other audacious moves: track 3, a cover of "They Won't Go When I Go" by Stevie Wonder, which sent many scrambling for their unplayed copies of Fulfillingness' First Finale thinking "How'd I miss that song?" "Heal the Pain" is a sweet friendship song, "Mothers Pride," a bit over-serious but an effective anti-war song. "Praying For Time" actually sounds better now than it did then, and in fact the whole theme of rebirth with a new decade makes this album great to revisit, because it's not fueled as much by nostalgia as you'd expect.

There are some very early 90s trappings ("Soul Free" is the one song I always skip over, and there's some pretty "obvious" drum sounds and synths here and there), but I'm quite impressed at how well the disc holds up. Really, the star is George Michael's voice, never more expressive than here, wrapped around words that obviously mean so much to him. He really puts this album across like his whole life depends on it, and even on a song like "Something to Save," which is pretty slight in comparison to the bigger songs on the album, he really commands the listener. The songwriting, the voice, the many instruments he plays throughout – and he was worried about being taken seriously.

The public was indifferent, of course, and the career aftermath of the public sex arrest won't send people scurrying out to the CD shop to buy this album. But it will always be around as a testament to what the man is capable of. Then again, so will his arrest report, I guess. Well, all the more reason to truly take this album's advice and judge the man on his music rather than his member.

Review by Harmon Harmonica