Serious George Is Back

NO ONE IN THE WORLD COULD EVER take George Michael quite as seriously as George Michael. So why bother trying? He was gloriously silly back in the Wham! days, hopping around his videos in teensy, tight shorts with his Bobbsey Twins singing partner, Andrew Ridgeley. He was still silly in the megaplatinum ""Faith'' days, wiggling his butt on MTV, acting so tough in that leather jacket when we knew underneath he was just a big pop softie. His silliness became acute around the time of his high-minded 1990 album, ""Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,'' when he burned his leather jacket in the ""Freedom 90'' video and hired a bunch of cover girls to lip-sync his words. The result was a fabulous piece of pop trashology, and an enormously watchable video. But was it a statement? Not really, unless you call ushering in the Age of Supermodels a real contribution to society.

But all that was just a warm-up. In 1992 Michael sued to end his contract with Sony, alleging that they treated him less like an artist than a piece of software. The nerve of them! Michael lost the suit, but last year DreamWorks SKG and Virgin shelled out a reported $52 million for the privilege of buying out his contract and releasing his next two albums. So a lot is riding on Michael's new opus. The seriousness/silliness quotient has become especially crucial. And a question hangs in the balance. Was Michael's fight with Sony a heroic battle for artists' rights? Or was it just one more melodrama in a career that's reached soap operatic proportions?

Well, the answer is: both. On ""Older,'' released this week, ""''Michael hits the balance perfectly, just as he always has. It's gorgeous and romantic, ambitious and revelatory, feather-light and exquisitely listenable. Michael mixes acoustic guitars and synthesizers, high-tech drum tracks and old-school sax solos; he produced, wrote, arranged and mostly played everything himself. The album is dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, and songs like ""Move On'' and ""It Doesn't Really Matter'' have the breezy, sultry sadness of Jobim's great '60s collaborations with Frank Sinatra. Elsewhere Michael updates crooners like Johnny Mathis and Nat (King) Cole: his voice glides with easy sophistication through heartachy ballads, flitting to falsetto when the sentiment moves him. The only mistake is ""Star People,'' a snobbish dismissal of a peer group Michael doesn't deserve to distance himself from. Even ""Free,'' the album's coda and a direct swipe at Sony (headphones labeled FONY were edited out of his new video, ""Fastlove''), comes off as vintage Michael. ""Feels good to be free,'' he whispers with frivolous delight. And we know just what he means. Michael's freedom is our freedom. It's his gift to his audience. He takes himself seriously so we don't have to.