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Popdose Flashback ’90: George Michael, “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1”

Growing up, it wasn’t easy to wrestle the remote control from my father’s hands, especially after dinner. That was simply his time, after a long day working two jobs, to watch the news and whatever else happened to be on TV that night. But on one evening in August of 1990, I had successfully lobbied for him to relinquish control to me for five minutes: MTV had announced they would be debuting the video for George Michael’s newest single, “Praying for Time,” at 8 PM.

It was to be an exciting moment for me, but also for viewers across the country. It probably doesn’t need repeating, but the last few years of the ’80s were incredibly fruitful for George Michael. Faith, released in late 1987, was the best selling album of 1988, with four #1 singles (six in the Top 5). A hugely successful tour followed, and Michael wound up in the upper echelon of pop artists along with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. His status as a musician, pop culture figure and sex symbol had never been higher.

And then, he disappeared from the spotlight, only to resurface occasionally at televised award shows (picking up the Grammy for Album of the Year and Favorite Soul/R&B Album at the American Music Awards, among others). A year away from the public eye seemed like forever, but news of his latest album slowly trickled out over the summer of 1990.

And so my parents and I gathered around the television that night in August. Like many, many others, I had become a huge fan of Michael following the release of Faith. I had gone back and explored the “canon” of Wham!, I had collected video sets, 45s, cassingles and 12″ mixes, and his 1988 concert at Madison Square Garden had completely blown my 11-year-old mind. I was excited and anxious to see what Michael had in store for us. And here it was! Shut up, dad, it’s starting!

“What the hell is this shit?” my father asked, incredulously.

I still had a smile on my face, but it was now a nervous smile. All the excitement had drained from behind my eyes. I kind of had the same question, but I couldn’t reveal that to my father. “It’s…it’s art, Dad! He’s making a statement! We should all be praying for…and listening without…oh forget it!” And I ran up to my room, frustrated and disappointed. He was right. What the hell was this shit? Where was George Michael, with the slick silver-toed boots and the leather jacket and the earring? Why was he singing so low and soft in the verses? Where was the funk? Were there even drums on that goddamn track? What the hell happened to my favorite artist?

I wasn’t the only one asking that question. At 13 years old, what I couldn’t have known was that George Michael had grown sick of the fame machine. The attention from an unquenchable media, coupled with a massive world tour that left him feeling lonely and isolated (without a sympathetic confidante like, say, Andrew Ridgeley), had aged him remarkably in only a couple of years. Michael was going to grow up, and he was going to do it on his terms. He was going to step outside the system.

Enter Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, a collection of thoughtful, mature tracks that seemed the direct antithesis to Faith. Michael was still talking about love, faith and betrayal, but the mood was much different. He stripped himself bare on a number of tracks, with none more honest than the final song, “Waiting (Reprise)”:

There ain’t no point in moving on
Until you’ve got somewhere to go
And the road that I have walked upon
Well, it filled my pockets and emptied out my soul

Also, there was a downright surprising amount of acoustic guitars.

Like Faith, the majority of the songs were written and performed by Michael, and most of them were quite solid. But the album has a somber quality throughout, most notable on…well…everything, actually. The lead-off single, “Praying for Time,” speaks of a world falling apart, destroyed by politics and injustice, subsequently ignored by God. This is the man whose last lead-off single asked if we thought it was time we had sex with him. “Something to Save” questions his partner’s devotion. And in “Heal the Pain,” Michael asks if he can heal the…well, you get it. “Cowboys and Angels” is the lyrical and musical older brother of “Kissing a Fool,” and “Mothers Pride” recounts a woman who watches both of her men go off to war. (The song was re-cut by radio stations as something of a Gulf War anthem in 1991, including messages from soldiers’ loved ones.) These were all good songs (the harmonies on “Something to Save” are particularly full and beautiful, and years later, “Heal the Pain” was re-recorded as a duet with Paul McCartney), but full of a sadness that seems to be missing the hope found even on Faith‘s darkest moments.

That’s not to say that LWP was devoid of a groove; it was just less prevalent. Significantly less prevalent. The album’s second single and its most memorable hit, “Freedom! ’90,” was a phenomenal dance song from start to finish, with a sing-along quality throughout verse, bridge and chorus. The message — I’m sick of being a pop star! — may have been lost on much of its audience, due in part to its distracting video. Michael had informed his record company he wouldn’t be appearing in any videos to promote the album, but recruited David Fincher to direct some of the world’s biggest supermodels —  Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz and Cindy Crawford — miming along with the track. It was almost enough to make one bypass the heavy-handed images of George’s “Faith” video icons — the guitar, the jukebox, the leather jacket — exploding into pieces. My dad liked this video more than “Praying for Time.”

There were a couple of other grooves as well: The fantastic “Waiting for That Day,” in particular, carries another mature message but delivers it backed by a sample of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” Michael discusses the track’s genesis, and why he chose to blend funk with folk, in this video from the studio. (As a side-note, it also repeats the line “you can’t always get what you want” in the outro, prompting a legal stink that resulted in the track being renamed ‘Waiting for That Day/You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and adding a Jagger/Richards credit.) The only other dance track on the album is the album’s weakest, the completely forgettable “Soul Free.” In fact, perhaps the most danceable song recorded during this period, ‘Fantasy,” was left off the album entirely, presumably for thematic reasons (don’t look like you’re having fun, George!); it was released as the B-side to “Freedom! ’90” and was eventually (and wisely) included on Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael.

For my money, the most powerful track on LWP is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Recorded in a live setting without an audience, Michael handles all vocals, both lead and overdubbed backing, and delivers with every ounce of emotion imaginable. Though it doesn’t beat the original, he’s always been a particularly good interpreter of Wonder’s material. Given Michael’s state of mind at the time, it was an obvious and appropriate choice for inclusion.

Despite what it said about Michael as an artist, LWP was a big middle-finger to those who had helped bring him to the spotlight. No promotion, no video, no picture of George Michael on the goddamn album cover and a single about biting the hand that fed him, which only saved his ass because it happened to be an amazing song. Its subsequent tour (while fantastic) featured over 50% cover songs with not a lot of choreography, and when it was over, he once again retreated — this time disappearing into a haze of love, loss and marijuana — not to return until 1996’s lackluster Older. (Plans for LWP Vol. 2 were quickly scrapped after Vol. 1‘s release, with a few of the tracks donated to 1992’s Red Hot + Dance compilation.)

Don’t people change? Here I am. Is it too late to try again?, George Michael asks in the final lines of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. And the answer from America to that last question was, by and large, yes. The public would’ve forgiven him for the wait (certainly Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince all took their sweet time between albums during this period), but without an album full of the material his fans had grown to love — and with a decided stop paying attention to me vibe that he has wrestled with to this day — it was only a matter of time before they moved on.  The album remained in the Billboard Top 200 for 42 weeks, compared with Faith‘s whopping 87. He cracked the Top 10 a few more times with songs like “Too Funky” and “Fastlove,” but a public battle with Sony (not to mention a little incident in Will Rogers Memorial Park) all helped him lose his hold over America. He continues to find success in Europe despite an alarmingly large number of poor personal decisions, most involving drugs and automobiles. His first US tour in 17 years proved successful, and though he’ll probably never be front-page news for his music again, he seems to be okay with it. Maybe he’s finally gotten the musical freedom he was looking for all along. Either way, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 remains an overall solid release, and an compelling document of stardom’s disillusionment.

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