By David Browne
Updated May 17, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Fresh from a bitter and very public lawsuit against his former record company, George Michael has a contract with a new label, a second wind for his career, and old fans to catch up with. Your average fella might be upbeat about the situation, but George Michael is hardly your average anything. The goateed man with the matted, severe Caesar haircut who stares at us from the cover of Older shows a hint of a smile with the faintest of confidence; half his face is hidden in shadows. He looks like Mephistopheles as pickup artist. Before you’ve even heard a note, the photograph announces that the George Michael we once knew is gone — although, based on Older, it’s much more difficult to determine just who he has become.

Something happened to Michael at the dawn of the decade, and whatever it is, he can’t shake it. With Wham! and on his solo debut, Faith, he eagerly marketed himself as a butt-wiggling girl toy who also happened to be a sensitive artist — the thinking man’s Chippendales act. Yet he yearned to be taken seriously, to the point where he refused to appear in videos for or do interviews to promote Faith‘s follow-up, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. The result was career suicide. Unlike Madonna, who has segued into adulthood with a deftness that would humble stealth pilots, Michael wanted too much respect too soon. When the album stiffed, he came across as petulant and pouty after he blamed its failure on his label, Sony Music, and fans unwilling to relinquish his poster-boy image. The Sony lawsuit followed, and Michael, who at one time seemed born in the spotlight, withdrew from it.

It’s appropriate to resurrect this historical detail because Older, starting with its title, never lets you forget the torment Michael has endured. Whether about business dealings or tattered love affairs, its songs present Michael as victim, a perennial wounded bird. Sexuality is downplayed in favor of melancholy and introspection. The lyrics are dotted with references to waking up, as if the last six years were a bad dream: ”I’ve got to get back on my feet/I feel like I’ve been sleeping,” he laments in ”Move On.” That song, with its slight cocktail-music breeze, lives up to its title, but a more familiar sentiment is that of ”The Strangest Thing”: ”There’s a liar in my head/ There’s a thief upon my bed/And the strangest thing is I cannot seem to get my eyes open.” Someone wake him up before he go-goes.

With such a barrage of pained lyrics, it would be too easy — but what the hell — to call the album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2. But Older has the same narcissistic, mirthless undertone that hampered Vol. 1, with one crucial difference. Even more so than its predecessor, Older is Michael’s bid for positioning as a mature, adult pop tunesmith — which, in his definition of the term, means dropping the frivolity along with Andrew Ridgeley. Older is one of the most downbeat, low-key comebacks ever made. With only a few exceptions, the arrangements percolate at mid-tempo, gently nudged along by mild synthesizers; it’s as if he pressed the ”bossa nova” button on his keyboard and left it on for an hour. ”The Strangest Thing” wastes an exotic Middle Eastern snake-charmer riff on a thin, malnourished beat. The few upbeat cuts — like the single ”Fastlove,” where he dares suggest a one-night stand to a partner — uffer most from these arrangements. Literally stuck in one groove, they lack the dynamics — the delirious hills and valleys — of great club tracks.

Michael sings these songs in a soft, careful whisper, as if he didn’t want to oversell them. The few hooks that emerge — the way his voice glides into the gentle sway of ”It Doesn’t Really Matter” or the air-cushioned arrangement of ”Fastlove,” which recalls Michael Jackson’s more effortless ”Rock With You” — are a tease, hinted at and then pulled away, as if delivering a brassy hook were not the proper thing to do. In ”Star People,” his diatribe against unnamed music-biz types (those at Sony, it’s safe to assume), he snipes, ”Star people, counting your money till your soul turns green.” In the same song, he even tries his hand at Therapy 101: ”Maybe your mama gave you up, boy/Maybe your daddy didn’t love you enough, girl.” As the song slams shut, he spits out, ”How much is enough?” Everybody party!

Older isn’t a disreputable record, but it’s tentative and bland, and it lends itself to its own kind of psychoanalysis. Perhaps Michael feels so scarred by his recent career troubles and whatever has gone sour in his love life that he doesn’t want to be burned again, and he has created a joyless form of music to match that sense of wariness — songs that actively resist being loved or adored. In an unintentionally perverse way, Older may be the most honest album George Michael has ever made. C