I would like to thank the most patient audience in the history of pop music, for waiting. Again.” So writes George Michael in the liner notes of Patience, his first album of new material since 1996’s Older. In the interim, he has bided his time with a greatest-hits set (1998’s Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael) and an overlooked collection of covers (1999’s Songs from the Last Century), while making the biggest news after being arrested for lewd conduct in a Beverly Hills park bathroom in 1998. The toilet is exactly where Michael’s career appeared to be, but fans who have kept the faith will be rewarded with the virtuous Patience. The disc, which sounds like a sequel to 1990’s sublime Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 demonstrates why the British star should have been—and could still wind up being, if he doesn’t stick to his claim that this will be his last CD—the Elton John of his generation. Whether on luxurious ballads (“John and Elvis Are Dead”), deceptively breezy midtempo numbers (“Amazing”) or extended, club-ready dance tracks (“Precious Box”), Michael, 40, remains one of pop’s premier craftsmen. Lyrically, Patience may be Michael’s most personal work. Now out as a gay man, he addresses his partner, Kenny Goss, on the atmospheric “American Angel”; a former lover who died of AIDS-related causes on the Latin-tinged “Please Send Me Someone (Anselmo’s Song)”; and his uncle, suspected of being gay, who committed suicide, on the poignant “My Mother Had a Brother”: “Mother will you tell him about my joy/I live each day with him/ Your son came out, yeah/And I’m still breathing it in.” The singer reflects on his Wham! beginnings with Andrew Ridgeley on the sweetly nostalgic “Round Here.” And on the haunting closer, “Through,” Michael, still possessing one of the best voices in the business, acknowledges his tabloid troubles of recent years: “All this hatred may just make me strong enough/ To walk away.” After this triumphant return, let’s hope not.