We gave it a B+
Welcome to Rick Astley’s coming-out party. His new album represents the first time the skin-deep pop-soul singer has worked outside the stranglehold of his old producers, Stock-Aitken-Waterman. That power trio is known for sculpting a swirlingly ornate dance-pop sound as rigidly defined as classic Motown. Astley has coproduced this new album himself, penned most of its material, and dubbed it Free, all of which chillingly suggests we’ve got another George Michael on our hands — another likable lightweight who yearns to be taken dead seriously. Luckily Free merely substitutes one brand of blissfully shallow pop for another. His own style turns out to be less busy, and less danceable, than his old production team’s, but it’s just as energetically dippy. The album revives a hook-laden style of bubble-gum soul popular in the ’70s that treated R&B with a flip insouciance. Astley’s singing continues to be a draw; his voice is fluid, deep, and thoroughly unadorned. Astley’s entire style, in fact, is unfettered and unaffected; he’s the kind of pop lollipop that really hits the spot.