* * 1/2
"I'm not the man you want," George Michael sings on the moody title track of his long-anticipated new album. He's addressing a lover in the song, but there's clearly a bigger picture here.
Since the release of his last studio album, 1990's "Listen Without Prejudice," the former teen idol has been frustrated by what he perceives as a conflict between his need for personal freedom and artistic autonomy and the tendency of others to stifle or pigeonhole him. This struggle came to a head four years ago, when Michael began a bitter and costly legal battle to get out of his contract with Sony Music, on the grounds that the record company wasn't supporting his efforts to establish himself as a more mature artist.
Unfortunately, Michael's sober quest for maturity and respect may have taken a toll on more than just his bank account.
The quality that's always distinguished his best material, dating back to his bubble-gum days in Wham!, is a sense of pure pop transcendence. Even in expressing more troubling or sophisticated emotions, the hit songs from "Prejudice" and 1987's "Faith" were memorable for their radiant melodies and arrangements full of earnest passion and energy.
In contrast, many of the new album's icily elegant, minor-chord-driven tunes sound uninspired, effete, even cynical--older indeed, but not necessarily in ways that one associates with creative growth.
To his credit, Michael has retained his flair for incorporating savory accents of funk and soul into his pop brew. The breezy, hip-hop-laced "Fast Love" is among the album's more endearing tracks. "Star People" is equally infectious, with a crisp beat and creamy backing vocals.
But other songs, particularly the ballads, suffer from the same lack of structure and overly tame production that afflicts a lot of contemporary R&B.; The airy, synth-laden "It Really Doesn't Matter" is a quiet storm devoid of electricity. "To Be Forgiven" is warmer and prettier, kissed with delicate wisps of acoustic guitar, but it stays resolutely in cocktail party mode.
On "Spinning the Wheel" and "Move On," Michael achieves a light jazz feel that also makes for good background music but should have no noticeable effect on your central nervous system. As on the rest of the album, he sings in a fey, breathy voice about romantic ennui, now and then pausing to insist he's pleased with the man he's become as a result of his unsettling experiences.
But perhaps he betrays himself on "To Be Forgiven," when he croons, "Maybe the child in me will just let me go." Let's hope so, because at the rate this mature pop star is going right now, it seems like he's never gonna dance again. And that would be a shame.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).