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George Michael's re-released "Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1" sounds even better the second time around

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The remastered version of George Michael's 1990 album "Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1."
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ALBUM REVIEW: George Michael – Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 (Remastered) / MTV Unplugged (Sony Legacy) 2017 / 1990

In a bit of sad irony, it was last Christmas that 53-year old George Michael passed away from natural causes, just as he seemed on the cusp of a return to the international spotlight as he was working on his documentary George Michael: Freedom and was also prepping for a release of the recording of his 1996 MTV Unplugged performance, which was out during the release of his Older album.

That recording is included with the remastered release of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, an album I argue that is George Michael’s masterpiece, and for those who missed it the first time around, can, perhaps, appreciate the exquisitely-crafted songs that Michael had wanted to share with the world, a few years after his globally-embraced, chart-smashing hit record Faith.

I was a Wham! fan, and while I liked some of the songs on Faith, I was blown away in the autumn of 1990 when the much-anticipated release of his new “Praying For Time” single/video was released. Clearly this was not going to be Faith Pt. 2. This was bold and smart. A far cry from the butt-wiggling of '87.

Michael was nowhere in the video. And the song’s topical, heartfelt lyrics, reflected the unease a lot of people were feeling, a month or more after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, where President George Bush said, a month before the release of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1: “This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

George Michael’s new material was in sync with the times, as we headed into the more serious decade of the 1990’s, hot on the heels of the wild and reckless 80’s, of which George Michael was a pop star icon, singing in the funky second single, “Freedom! ’90,” that “I was every little hungry schoolgirl’s pride and joy / And I guess it was enough for me.

But when the exhausting, two-year-long Faith tour ended in 1989, George Michael went right to work on the follow-up album, which his label wasn’t as excited about, since their cash cow was hanging up the leather jacket and trying to actually be taken seriously. This was the album where he declared his freedom, a term he was truly embracing, even if he did have an earlier Wham! hit with that same song title.

So, with George Michael on the minds of many aging folks who shook their groove thangs back in the day with the stubble-faced hunk since his Christmas Day death (something I still can’t believe, and will likely end up sending Wham!’s “Last Christmas” to number one in December – just watch). Here is my tribute to George Michael, an artist who seems to be more appreciated now than he was even 20 years ago, and who is seeing Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 returning to the top spot again, in his native Britain.

Tributes to the late George Michael. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

British pop music writer John Aizlewood was given the responsibility of writing the liner notes for Listen, reminding us of GM’s quote at the time of its release: “Fame and success wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be.” He had made it to the “top of the mountain,” as Aizlewood tells us, after which: “where is there to go?”

Well, Aizlewood tells us, he went in a mature direction, one that featured a George Michael who was more emotional, intelligent and contemplative than the man in the leather jacket and “Choose Life” T-shirts had been a few years earlier.

Memories of George Michael. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

This album, released when Michael was in his late 20’s, wanted to show the world he had depth and creativity and talent that wasn’t just courtesy hot-shot producers and ace session musicians. For the most part, Michael would play every instrument and get each song down exactly the way he wanted it.

But perhaps the album was underappreciated at the time because it was released so soon after Faith was beginning to fall off the charts after a long run internationally. It was too big of a leap, hearing this album of acoustic guitars, “Funky Drummer” samples, strings and jazz and bossa nova. It was a little too eclectic for Michael’s audience. Sure, they liked his “Kissing a Fool” single, which gave listeners a peek into what was to come with “Cowboys and Angels,” a lengthy number that is my favorite song on the album.

Sure, many still loved that smooth, passionate voice, but it was clear that George Michael was going through a serious change in style and identity and vision. Songs like the spare-but-powerful cover of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” and the Sting-like, minor-key ballad “Mother’s Pride,” which was played on radio in early 1991 as a moving tribute to soldiers being sent to Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. Iraq’s aggression did not stand, as Bush promised …

A year earlier, his 80’s pop music peer, Genesis drummer/vocalist Phil Collins, had done something similar with … But Seriously, a more serious album (featuring a melancholy-looking Phil on the cover) that still managed to produce some big radio hits, even one tackling homelessness (“Another Day In Paradise”).

So, hearing the earnest, strummy “Something To Save,” Michael still hits those higher notes and reminds us he is the same guy, he’s just a little older, a little wiser. Unfortunately, it was not a “radio friendly unit shifter,” save for “Praying For Time” (which did reach number one), “Freedom! ’90,” and the Top 40 hit “Waiting for That Day,” which was credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards because he used the line and melody from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  

And speaking of oldsters, “Heal the Pain” was another single in the vein of Beatle Paul McCartney. It’s somewhat lightweight, but it’s bubbly effervescence is a bit of a respite from the weightier tone of Listen over all. In fact, in 2005, Michael would re-record “Heal the Pain” with McCartney, as part of his Twenty Five “best of” collection. We get the original version here, of course.

The more dance-oriented “Soul Free,” which had an element of the poppy R&B of that era (think En Vogue), seemed like a potential radio hit when it was sent to radio stations in April 1991, but it failed to garner much attention and by that summer, the album was being forgotten, with Nirvana’s Nevermind just a few weeks away from shaking the foundations of pop music forever.

I would like to think there was more for Sony to release (the same label that fought Michael – and won – over his lawsuit claiming they weren’t supporting him as an artist and led to there not being a Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2, sadly).

The MTV Unplugged recording isn’t essential, since it was recorded six years after Listen was released. The opener, a stripped down acoustic version of “Freedom! ‘90” features soulful background singers and Michael really in his element, his kiss-off to the pop-music-industrial-complex.

There is no “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” or “I Want Your Sex” or even “Faith.” But we do get “Father Figure” and “Everything She Wants,” the “one Wham! track” he performed at the Unplugged gig. Clearly this is among Michael’s favorite songs that he created during his days with fellow Wham!-er Andrew Ridgeley. It’s also my favorite Wham! song.

And his hit at the time, “Fastlove,” is smooth and sexy, as the original, studio-produced version was back in ’96.

And while the Michael wasn’t out of the closet, he did tell the MTV audience, before performing “You Have Been Loved,” that the song was meant for someone he dearly loved. That person he was referring to was his lover, Anselmo Feleppa, who died three years earlier on an AIDS-related illness.

Knowing what we know now about George Michael’s sexual identity, the shift in style in the 1990’s could be interpreted as his realization that friends and lovers were succumbing to AIDS and that even before the age of 30, he was becoming more mindful of the fragility of life. It’s as though he got “older” before his time, things were happening so fast in his life in those years.

Nevertheless, it did not seem to interfere with his innate songwriting talents. And that voice seemed to just get better and have more range as he aged.

He closes out the set with “Praying For Time,” followed by a Nile Rodgers reworking and remixing of his Listen Without Prejudice-era song “Fantasy,” which had been relegated to a B-side (“Waiting for That Day”) and left off the album. 

Oh, and the album cover used on this remastered version is a photo of Michael from that era, replacing the original album cover art, which was a cropped photo of the 1940 Weegee image called Crowd at Coney Island, which is relegated to the interior of the album instead.

This is an important part of George Michael's impressive catalogue, an album I argue is evidence of his amazing talent and vocal abilities. A real tribute, coming nearly a year after he passed. And an entertainer who is dearly missed.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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