*** GEORGE MICHAEL "Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1" Columbia : A lbums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic). :

Parts of this somber, ballad-heavy album play as a sort of apologia for the pop/soul superstar's previous recordings and videos, where his considerable craft was overshadowed by an oft-mocked sexy pinhead persona.

"When you shake your ass? / They notice fast / And some mistakes were built to last," he sings in "Freedom '90" (an old Wham! song with new, pointedly updated lyrics), in apparent prediction that his derriere-wiggling days will forever leave extreme prejudice in the hearts and minds of his most ardent detractors. That's followed by a promise: "There's something deep inside of me / There's someone I forgot to be."

Whatever your preconceptions about Michael, "Listen"--some self-seriousness aside--is an impressive piece of work in which Michael's rich feel for melodies and instinctively perfect production skills have finally met up with songs that have the ring of personal, not commercial, passion.

With only a couple of vaguely danceable cuts in earshot, and an emphasis on Elton John-ish mournful ballads, the album's two major themes--regret over career to date, regret over a lost love--are indeed enormously self-absorbed but ring with a conviction that isn't negligible. And when he sings "All we have to do now / Is take these lies and make them true somehow," he speaks eloquently for any artist who ever found himself grappling for something meaningful to say well after superstardom has set in. This isn't a bad start. Apologia accepted.

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