But if Outside seemed to show fans a new, more liberated Michael, then it was a process that started eight years earlier with Listen without Prejudice Vol 1. Flynn calls the album Michael’s “grand apologia for being in the closet” as well as “the album where he turns his back on fame”. “It’s the album where he realises where his hollow ambitions have led him to, and the compromises they have involved, which have so much to do with his sexuality,” Flynn says. He points out that the poignant album track Mother’s Pride, on which Michael sings about a son going off to war, can be read as a metaphor for a son coming out of the closet. Certainly, Michael delivers lyrics such as “and in her heart the time has come to lose a son” with palpable pathos.
Reckoning with his sexuality
While writing Faith, Michael disguised any personal turmoil within flashy pop music that was designed to grab the zeitgeist – though the music video for I Want Your Sex, the album’s self-consciously provocative lead single, featured his then-girlfriend Cathy Jeung, Michael later said it was written about a man who was playing hard to get. On Listen without Prejudice Vol 1, however, Michael’s complex private life fuelled music that was more subdued and nuanced, and which alluded to his sexuality without making anything explicit. Cowboys and Angels, a beautiful jazz-flavoured ballad from the album, was inspired by the same unrequited love that Michael mined for I Want Your Sex. “He was the guy I was in love with when I was with Cathy (Jeung), who was definitely in love with me at that time,” he told Attitude magazine in 2004. “So it was very autobiographical.”
There were also hints of Michael’s inner conflict in Heal the Pain, a Beatles-influenced folk-pop song which he later recorded as a duet with Paul McCartney. Now, when Michael sings, “How can the outside world be a place that your heart can embrace? Be good to yourself because nobody else has the power to make you happy,” it’s easy to hear him directing this sound advice at himself. Elsewhere, the house-flecked Soul Free – besides Freedom! ‘90, the album’s only uptempo song – shimmered with the possibility of a semi-illicit thrill as Michael sang in an ecstatic falsetto: “When you touch me baby, I don’t have no choice, oh that sweet temptation in your voice!”