Featured album: George Michael “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol.1” (1990)

LWP

This year will mark the 30th Anniversary of George Michael’s “difficult” second solo album. We’ve raided the vaults at AFDPJ for a lengthy piece written about Listen Without Prejudice not long after the singer’s shock passing at the end of 2016…

GEORGE MICHAEL: “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol.1” (1990)

Praying For Time 4:41 (UK single, #6)
Freedom ’90 6:30 (UK single, #28)
3 They Won’t Go When I Go 5:06
4 Something To Save 3:18
Cowboys And Angels 7:14 (UK Single, #45)
Waiting For That Day 4:49 (UK single, #23)
7 Mothers Pride 3:59
8 Heal The Pain 4:39 (UK single, #31)
9 Soul Free 5:30
10 Waiting (Reprise) 2:27

 

In the musical equivalent of sport’s “you’re a better player when you’re not in the team” phenomenon, how often does it seem that an artist’s records sound that bit more affecting and meaningful when the artist in question is suddenly no longer with us?

This isn’t purely an exercise in revisionism, however. As 1990 came to a close, my end-of-year favourites would have lined up something like: Wilson Phillips, Jordan: The Comeback, Happiness and then Listen Without Prejudice ahead of Behaviour or Violator to complete the top 5. Praying For Time was my #1 single of the year.

George Michael had been at the epicentre of pop between 1983 and 1988, dominating the UK and later US charts with Wham! and then the hugely-successful (if artistically unsatisfying) Faith era. He’d written and performed a UK or US #1 single in every year from 1984 to 1988 as his label continued to mine the Faith album. And then, in 1989…..nothing.

Silence.

Madonna had, of course, pulled the same trick a year before, getting off the promo treadmill and returning 18 months later a renewed, and more interesting, force with Like A Prayer. But 1989 became 1990 and, still nothing. Then in mid-summer, Music Week magazine (or it may have been Record Mirror) ran a feature on the state of the UK charts and included some quotes from George. “I don’t know where I would fit in anymore”, he said, “I expect my next record will make the lower half of the Top 40 or something”. At that stage, Listen Without Prejudice had yet to be announced, and Praying For Time had not been released.

But it gives a clue as to his mindset while recording the album, and no doubt had the suits at Epic Records (now SONY) in a cold sweat after the spectacular misfire that was Terence Trent D’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh the previous winter. An uncommercial record by the king of the charts?! Heaven forbid.

GM90

Portrait of a serious young man, Autumn 1990.

Praying For Time was a bolt from the blue when it eventually appeared, a shambling, almost festive-sounding lament high on atmosphere and low on catchy choruses. Just perfect for those hot August afternoons. Much was made (not least by the man himself) of shunning the fame game, jacking in the celebrity bullshit and promotional circus, of being true to his creative needs and following a more honest musical direction. All of which left him open to accusations of pretension and generally taking himself too seriously (the album’s title also became the source of much mirth), but Praying For Time delivers on that rather earnest intent.

The lyrics are introspection turned up to eleven, a kind of slow-motion stream of consciousness with plenty of wordplay, heavy symbolism and yet still-powerful imagery. “Charity is a coat you wear, twice a year”….”the rich declare themselves poor, and most of us are not sure but we’ll take our chances cos God’s stopped keeping score”…and so on. A torrent of weariness and cynicism that is not just light years from Faith, but in another galaxy altogether. George Michael the tortured, reclusive rockstar despairs at the world. Yes! This was right up my street in 1990. For all its lack of a proper chorus, it’s also a lovely tune.

The single debuted in the Top 10, inched up a couple of places, then quickly excused itself from chart duties. In retrospect, it’s obvious to see that Freedom (or Freedom ’90 as it became known) would have served as a more effective game-changer; a fresh starting point that might have caused less bafflement among the public and fewer panic attacks in the Sony boardroom. As a rejection of all that had gone before, and as close to a coming-out as he ever managed (at least until 1998), “I think there’s something you should know….I think it’s time I stopped the show….there’s someone deep inside of me….someone I forgot to be” makes it clear that “the rules of the game have got to change…”.

Set to the most uptempo rhythm on the whole album, and accompanied by the nearest thing to a conventional pop video, Freedom ’90 would have surely had more impact as the lead single, than rushed out just before Christmas 1990 as the album’s third UK single.

Listen Without Prejudice, A Singular Adventure: Waiting For That Day, Cowboys & Angels, Praying For Time and Freedom 90.

Listen Without Prejudice always felt a slightly uneven experience; Faith was, too, but in a different way. Faith‘s heavy-handed production, leaden arrangements and sometimes try-hard approach wasn’t helped by the track sequencing. Looking at the sleevenotes to Listen… reveals a few details of the album’s genesis; Something To Save in late 1988 being the first fruits of an attempt to follow the Faith era, its stripped-down acoustica noticeably more melodic and direct than his 90s work.

The live take of They Won’t Go When I Go is undoubtedly heartfelt, but jars in the middle of Side One and begins something of an obsession with cover versions and live recordings that continued through the rest of the decade right up to the last project released in his lifetime (Symphonica).

However, the beautifully lush jazz orchestrations of Cowboys & Angels was one of Listen…‘s immediate highlights (ignore its failure as a 5th UK single), a style he would go on (and on and on..) to perfect in subsequent years with the Older and Patience albums. With music like this, he was correct to assume he really didn’t fit in with the Top 40 landscape of the age anymore.

Mother’s Pride, the other ballad, was harder to love; the outbreak of war in the Gulf during early 1991 gave the track a higher profile, especially in the US where it actually charted in its own right, but the impeccable vocals and noble lyrics can’t hide a fairly ordinary song and dull arrangement.

Heal The Pain is George’s sweet McCartney homage (you could imagine it on Macca’s then-recent LP Flowers In The Dirt), so it was only fitting that many years later the track would be reworked/remixed for TwentyFive with McCartney performing on it. There probably isn’t another track in George Michael’s catalogue that has the same vibe, and it’s another excellent lyric.

What with it being 1990 and everything, a Soul II Soul sample couldn’t be far away, and Soul Free helpfully obliges. Harking back to the happier times of Wham! with its easy, loping groove and sunny harmonies, Sony missed a trick in not putting it out as a UK single somewhere along the line (it emerged in some territories with the same artwork as Heal The Pain). The dub breakdown is also, um, fantastic.

So that leaves arguably the key song(s) on the record, Waiting For That Day and its closing reprise. Yes, the “funky drummer” backbeat keeps it rooted in the early 90s, and slipped out as the rapid follow-up to Praying For Time was less than it deserved, but if Freedom ’90 serves as the mission statement for everything he was trying to do with the album, Waiting For That Day is a clever summing up of that process…. “so everybody’s talking about this new decade, as if you just say the magic numbers you say goodbye to the stupid mistakes you’ve made”.

He knows that despite all the pulling back from the trappings of stardom, and his refusal to play the role of global (hetero) pop icon, the insecurities, doubts and contradictions inside him cannot just go away. It was “time to get me some happy”, but there was a sense that it was still proving elusive. The brief reprise at the end of the album only added to that feeling of things being unresolved.

Surely though, it was a step in the right direction and better times would follow. With a second volume of Listen Without Prejudice, for a start. Right?

But then….

 

 

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s