George Michael wants to get serious. He says so on his new record Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, in a song called ''Freedom 90.'' ''Heaven knows I was just a young boy,'' he sings, looking back at those glory days way back in 1987 and 1988, when his debut solo album, Faith, shot up to No. 1, spawning more top 5 hits than any record in history and winning Michael a Grammy. Here's the kind of success he says appealed to him then: ''A prettier face!/Brand new clothes and a big fat place/On your rock and roll TV.''
But now, as he says, ''I think it's time I stopped the show/There's something deep inside of me/There's someone I forgot to be.'' So no more breathless, pushy, addictive pop tunes like his '87 smash ''I Want Your Sex,'' which made him a favorite video pinup. Instead he searches for his lost identity, writes a gentle antiwar number called ''Mother's Pride,'' and sings an inward-turning, almost morose Wonder song, ''They Won't Go When I Go.'' His opening cut, ''Praying for Time,'' invokes a sad parade of social ills poverty, hunger, homelessness, the callousness of the rich weaving them together in what almost might be a vision of the last days before the apocalypse.
Still, he hasn't lost his commercial touch. ''Praying for Time'' is also the first single from the album, and it's an instant success. Originally, there wasn't even a video; the new George Michael didn't want to use his pretty face to sell records. But even without MTV the tune became a gigantic radio hit. Against a backdrop of growing danger in the Persian Gulf, anxious listeners especially near military bases have adopted it as an anthem for our troubled time. (And a video was finally made showing no pictures at all, only the song's lyrics.)
Musically, the song marches forward with quiet but implacable steps, its sound woven from keyboards, bass, and the tasteful jangle of an acoustic guitar. Michael's voice, shrouded in electronic haze, is sometimes calm, sometimes suffused with sudden outrage and sorrow. The rest of the album, too, sounds burnished, with only the easy jiggle of songs like ''Freedom 90'' and ''Waiting for That Day'' left to remind us of the chart-topping popster Michael used to be.
But all this carefully crafted understatement exacts its revenge: The album gets boring. Faith might have been pushy and brash, but it was amazingly vital, and much more fun. If Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 polished, pretentiously titled, and, for all its noble sentiment, entirely unchallenging is the best music the newly mature George Michael can give us, I'm going to mourn the insufferable brat he apparently thinks he used to be. B-