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Listen, Again: Why George Michael's Pop Masterpiece Will Rightly Be Reappraised

28/12/2016 13:50

One of the final acts of George Michael's creative life was to oversee both the re-issue and re-evaluation of perhaps his most misunderstood, yet greatest pieces of work. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was released to a changing world - musically and otherwise - in the autumn of 1990, wrong-footing critics and fans alike. Just three months before his death, it was announced that it would be re-released alongside a brand new documentary - Freedom - this coming Spring.

Even on an aesthetic level, the album proved an immediate curveball. Michael wasn't present on the cover, instead replaced by a cropped 1940 black and white photograph "Crowd at Coney Island" by crime photojournalist Weegee. Both the back cover and the inner sleeve artwork were black with barely visible grey text. The funeral metaphor first employed so subtly on the organ intro to Faith's title track was now rampant across the whole of his second body of work.

With the benefit of hindsight, you can place a sense of foreboding throughout the record. Musically the most sombre of his works, it conversely precedes a trilogy of personal tragedies that would strike the singer down across the new decade it references in its lyrics. The death of his lover, followed by his mother, and a court case defeat to his record label were, incredibly, all still to come, yet on anthemic opener Praying For Time ("It's hard to love / there's so much to hate") he already sounds defeated.

While the world-conquering Faith contains Wham-esque moments that tend to date it (12" mixes, the disposable Monkey and Hard Day's Wham Rap-style exchange) its follow up pulls off the rare trick of seeming timeless. Partly this is down to luck. The decision to divide the album into two volumes (the second of which would never materialise) with one made up of ballads and the other purely up tempo means there's no dated dance production for the contemporary listener to contend with.

Michael would employ this splitting tactic more fully on the knowingly-titled greatest hits compilation Ladies & Gentleman...The Best Of George Michael (its two sides titled "For the Heart" and "For The Feet"). But to be one half of an ultimately ditched double album not only gives Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 a unique place in music history, it allowed Michael the freedom (no pun intended) to compile an album almost uniquely made up of ballads - safe in the knowledge he would compensate for it some eighteen months later (of course he never would).

It's difficult to imagine any pop star today putting out a similar record - almost entirely 'banger' free if you like - while at the peak of their powers. And probably with good reason - Michael would ultimately pay the commercial price, his most unbalanced of offerings selling 8 million copies worldwide compared to its predecessor's 25 million. Yet it's unlikely to have bothered him for the same reasons Noel Gallagher appears to have lost little sleep over another 90s follow-up to a heavyweight - Be Here Now - only selling a third of Morning Glory's tally.

There are of course breezier moments on the record. Freedom '90 follows hot on the heels of the aforementioned Praying For Time at second in the running order - it's supermodel video and upbeat feel tilting the earth-scorching lyrics into something more playful than whinging. But it's a long wait until penultimate track Soul Free lifts the mood again and by then the tone is set.

The second UK single to be lifted from the album - Waiting For The Day - does feature the then ubiquitous James Brown "Funky Drummer" drum sample. A fusion of Michael's black and white musical influences (possibly more progressive than actually calling your single Black & White), it is, however, as far removed from the dancefloor as you can get - something which ultimately saves it. Slowed down and harnessed to a more traditional song structure it deftly escapes early 90s sample cliché.

Elsewhere there are breath-taking moments - Mother's Pride is stately, political and remarkably mature for a 27-year-old. But the album centrepiece is undoubtedly the jazz-infused Cowboys & Angels - a truly sublime piece of wistful, genre-defying music. Enormously effecting even before the addition of lyrics hinting at unrequited love, it glides and shimmers throughout its seven minutes running time - never outstaying it's welcome.

Three tracks in which Michael wears his influences on his sleeve while matching them go on to form the spine of the album. A cover of key-inspiration Stevie Wonder's They Won't Go When I Go more than equals the original while the McCartney-inspired Heal The Pain is so on the money that when the latter added vocals to it some fifteen years later fans barely noticed the difference. Waiting For The Day's outro borrows from The Stones which - in a negotiation that seems to have gone all-together smoother than that of The Verve's Richard Ashcroft's some seven years later - saw the song-writing credit amicably split three ways. Michael/Jagger/Richards - a symbolic moment that saw the singer-songwriter elevated beyond his 80s Smash Hits-peers and on a par with the greats.

Released in September 1990, Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 works as both a bold and brilliant closing time for an 80s mega-star club of which Michael was reluctantly a member. Prince had lost his way with successive under-whelming movie soundtracks. Michael Jackson would struggle to keep his run of albums going into a third decade and Madonna's Vogue earlier that year would be her last UK chart-topper for seven years.

The mainstream was about to shift - to Grunge in the U.S. where unthinkably Nirvana's Nevermind (from which the eclectic Michael would choose Smells Like Teen Spirit as a Desert Island Disc in 2007) kept Jackson's Dangerous off the U.S. No. 1 - and later to Britpop in the UK, a party from which 80s pop royalty were turned away at the door. Michael and his ilk would never quite have the floor in the same way again once the decade's new order established itself.

He himself would ultimately go on to select 1995's follow-up Older as his favourite all-time work (perhaps understandably due to the emotions associated with it) but a more impartial observer in Elton John would opt for this difficult and dark second solo outing as his masterpiece. Of course, it wouldn't be the last time they disagreed.

More than 25 years on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 stands alone as a compelling adult-pop comedown record. Classy and cohesive, it's ominous tone making it a difficult listen then but a relevant one now (the "you can't always get what you want" Stones refrain being particularly prescient). For his final two studio albums (the previously mentioned Older and 2004's Patience), Michael would return to club-land for inspiration. But, at a pivotal moment in his personal history - eight years after becoming famous and eight years before coming out - he offered us a stark and soulful glimpse into where he was heading ("I think there's something you should now / I think it's time I stopped the show") - rejecting both the fame he no longer wanted and the pretence of being something he wasn't while he still had the ear of the world.

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