Artist: George Michael
Album: Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1/MTV Unplugged
Label: Sony Music
Release Date: 10.20.17
Gambling with his flourishing career following the massive commercial success of 1987’s sleek, infectious funk/R&B party Faith, George Michael went all in with 1990’s follow-up Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. Wanting to be taken seriously as a recording artist, Michael was through playing nice.
Putting away the iconic leather jacket and tight blue jeans he wore in the famous “Faith” video, the late pop star has his sober visage—with those mirrored shades, a grizzled goatee and dark, close-cropped hair—plastered on the cover of the recently reissued two-CD set Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1/MTV Unplugged. He looks determined, jutting out his jaw as if daring critics to throw their punches. This was a war for his very soul.
In the accompanying booklet, surrounded by some ephemera and fascinating, insightful liner notes penned by John Aizlewood in 2016, there’s a quote from Michael saying, “In some ways celebrity has been a distraction. When I started out at sixteen, I thought of myself as a songwriter, and then my career turned into something I didn’t expect.” Few anticipated Michael to reject the formula that made him a star.
Long past due for a re-evaluation, the more acoustic Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1—which actually outsold Faith in the U.K., even if it was less of a hit Stateside—reveals an introspective, thoughtful side of Michael, most evident in the rich, gospel-soaked hymn “Praying for Time.” Wistful and softly swaying, “Waiting for that Day” echoes the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend,” even as Michael practically whispers in your ear lyrics from another Stones’ classic, “You can’t always get what you want.” Here, the lush, stylish jazz of “Cowboys and Angels,” sophisticated and seductive, slides up against more danceable, Latin-flavored fare such as “Soul Free” and the rolling, jubilant smash “Freedom! ’90,” as Michael cuts those “boys on MTV”—and anybody else looking to pigeonhole him—to the quick with surprisingly pointed and defiant lyrical barbs.
His suave and mature MTV Unplugged set, included in this package, only reinforces the notion that there was more to Michael than perfect grooming, with its smooth R&B operator “Fastlove,” profoundly moving, tender readings of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “You Have Been Loved” and a deeper, more engrossing version of “Father Figure.” Want more? How about the lost single “Fantasy” that Michael recorded with Nile Rodgers, its tight, minimalist grooves flecked with gold and reminiscent of Prince’s “Kiss.” That should be more than enough to give Michael his due.