Not just a sex symbol
In the late 1980s, all over the world pop music was synonymous with the two “Michaels” – Michael Jackson and George Michael. For George Michael this was a key moment, the band WHAM! had broken up, his first solo effort Faith which was released in 1987 was a monster hit and had become one of the best-selling albums of all time. But what next? Michael had a risky choice – to maintain the status quo as a heartthrob of millions, a sex symbol with a great voice who churned out dance numbers, or take a different turn and create fresh material which brought out all his singing, song writing & composing abilities.
George Michael’s second album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was released in September 1990 to lofty expectations.
Pop music, Seriously?
The first song is “Praying for Time,” a socially conscious ballad that questions us all – “why is it hard for people to be kind to one another? Why everyone feels that we have to grab what we can before it is gone?” Michael punches you in the gut with “Charity is a coat you wear twice a year.” In one telling passage, Michael sings “I may have too much but I’ll take my chances cause God’s stopped keeping score.” He ends hopefully that as we are now left to take our own decisions we will learn to treat each other with some compassion too.
Next, Michael celebrates his freedom from the straitjacket of a pop band & the trappings of pop stardom with “Freedom! 90”. It is an upbeat, groovy song with rousing lyrics where he bids goodbye to the usual tropes – win the race, prettier face, new clothes, big fat place, videos on MTV. Michael sings about striking out on his own. He wants his fans, his listeners to “have some faith in the sound, cause it is the one good thing that I’ve got.” It is a superb song that became popular all over the world, particularly in the US where it reached no.8 on the Billboard Top 100 charts.
A Voice to Die For
A cover version of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” follows. Michael’s clear resonant voice, lovely chorus, and simple piano music make it a beautiful composition. Michael’s ability as a versatile singer shines bright in this song. “Cowboys and Angels” is a sad haunting Jazz ballad with a lovely saxophone solo by Andy Hamilton. Michael has explained that this song is about a personal situation, a love triangle with the ridiculous feeling of not being able to get what you want. The song ends on a positive note with “Please be stronger than your past, the future may still give you a chance.”
“Waiting for That Day” is a funky song about lost love and Michael sings about missing their lover, pleading them to return. He reconciles in the end with “You can’t always get what you want.” Since the rhythm resembles a Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get, What You want,” Michael has shared the writing credits with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Sophisticated & Versatile
“Mothers Pride” is an anti-war song from a woman’s perspective where a wife has bid her husband goodbye as he goes to fight a war and soon as a mother, she will watch her son leave. Michael sings in a soft, sombre note about “All the Husbands, all the sons, all the lovers have gone. They make no difference, no difference in the end.”
“Heal the Pain” is a love ballad, where Michael explains a potential lover who has been hurt by someone else, that he will love her, respect & protect her to heal the pain that she feels inside. It is a lovely warm melody based on bass & acoustic guitars. Michael sings with tenderness “Be good to yourself, ‘Cause nobody else has the power to make you happy.” It is so true. Michael later said that he composed this song as a homage to Paul McCartney’s music style.
“Soul Free” is an up-tempo sensual number where Michael talks about the contradictions of life where you know that the relationship isn’t great, but you still can’t resist the temptation. “Waiting (Reprise)” is a short, melancholic song where Michael reveals his fears and hopes to the accompaniment of acoustic guitar and soft chorus. He seems to be talking directly to the listener about moving on, learning from the past, and people changing over time.
Soulful, Universal & Classic
It is now known that at this time, George Michael was struggling with multiple personal demons – of being a closet gay, the prevailing health concerns due to the raging AIDS epidemic, and his desire to be more than just another marketable pop icon.
Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was moderately successful, particularly when compared to Faith, In the USA, it didn’t do as well. It led to disputes between Michael & the record company and the follow-up album Vol. 2 was shelved.
George Michael took a huge gamble, he experimented with a wide range of musical styles (Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, Funk) with versatile orchestration and moods (introspective, questioning, hopeful, and energetic). The result was a raw, honest classic that cemented his position as a great musician.
Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 was reissued in October 2017, 10 months after George Michael’s death and it made it back to the top of the music charts (No 1 in the UK charts after 27 years).
George Michael refused to appear in the music videos for the album’s singles. The “Freedom! 90” music video was shot with the top supermodels of the day and was a super hit on MTV.
Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 won the British Album of the Year award in 1991.