After the massive success of 1987's FAITH (which sold over 10 million copies in the US, spawned six Top 10 hits, and won the Grammy for "Album of the Year"), expectations for George Michael's follow-up album were almost impossibly high. A long three years after the release of FAITH, volume 1 of LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE finally reached stores in September of 1990 (with the more dance-oriented Volume 2 then-scheduled to follow in June of `91), and it was greeted with mixed reaction. The album was a stark departure from FAITH, with largely acoustic instrumentation and a somber intensity in the lyrics and melodies. Though different from what was expected from him at the time, LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE is, in my opinion, George Michael's best work to date, and was sadly underrated by an audience who wasn't ready for it in 1990.
Instead of giving listeners MORE FAITH, Michael decided to do some serious reflection on himself and the world around him, which results in a very serious, often moody recording. Some critics and fans got it, but most of the general public found the record a dour and joyless affair from a pop singer who was taking himself too serious. The album peaked at a very respectable #2 on the Hot 200, and the first singles reached the Top 10 on the Hot 100. The remaining singles failed to chart in the US, and, even though the album ended up selling over a million copies, LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE was viewed as a major commercial disappointment when compared to the phenomenal success that FAITH had enjoyed. Sadly, the second volume was permanently shelved.
Thankfully, over the last few years, the album finally started getting some of the respect that it deserved, and many of Michael's fans have embraced it as one of his best albums. The disc is largely devoted to ballads and folk-styled rock, although Michael does venture back into club territory on the classic "Freedom `90" (#8 Pop, #27 Adult Contemporary, #16 Dance) and thumping "Soul Free." Both dance tracks hold up remarkably well, and stand a prime examples of early-nineties house music at its finest. There was also a killer remix of "Freedom" that incorporated elements of Soul II Soul's "Back to Life," which was released as a single and received a lot of radio airplay. If this album is ever reissued, I really hope that this remix is added as a bonus track.
The remainder of the album is where Michael really writes from his heart, and he is also possibly in the best voice of his career. Each track is terrific - flawlessly produced and arranged, soulfully sung and performed. The guitar-based, mid-tempo songs "Something to Save, ""Waiting for that Day" (#28 UK), and "Heal the Pain" (#31 UK) all feature memorable refrains and gorgeous vocal harmonies (largely performed by Michael, Deon Estus, and Shirley Lewis). Moving ballads such as the jazz-flavored epic "Cowboys & Angels" (#45 UK), the complex war parable "Mother's Pride," and a sparse cover of Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go When I Go" feature Michael at his mournful best.
My favorite song on the disc is the opening track and first single, the towering "Praying for Time" (#1 Pop, #4 Adult Contemporary, #6 UK Pop). With it's delicately phrased verses and booming chorus, the theologically-based power ballad is undoubtedly one of the most mature and complex singles to ever top the Hot 100. The same elements that run through "Prayer for Time" are present in the entire recording. While it may be viewed as a commercial failure when compared to the incredible success that FAITH achieved, it will also remain one of the greatest pop records released in the nineties. Simply put, LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE is one of the most underrated and misunderstood albums to be released by a major popular artist in the past 30 years.