Lit and Crit
Phil Collins and
Continued from pg. 2
Exhibit A: Genesis' next release, Duke. Suddenly, on Duke, the band sounds like it has found itself as a pop group as well as a rock group. The alchemy is already swirling in the retort and it has distilled its essence. Something has changed, something has clicked into place.
For one thing, they were only a triumvirate. Since there were only three of them, the solos and arrangements were shortened, made more essential. Duke shows the band tightening up on their game one more notch in order to play in the A leagues. The harmonic thrusts of the songs on Duke are now supplied by the vocals or a single synth or guitar instead of a bank of them. The focus works. Duke is without a doubt the finest album by Genesis. They lyrics are empathetic, the libretto touching. 35 years later the sonic palate still works and the production still pops.
On Duke, this new Genesis 2.0 confidently makes their bold declaration from the very first track, Turn It On Again. It starts with Phil's yelps and an insistent beat under an overture keynote. Then it builds energy. And builds. And builds, until you sense its relentlessness. This is a band which wants to get over with a kind of total commitment to success, taking it all back to the basics as a statement of first principles. This is a tight band, here is their riff. The keys invoke Genesis' soon to be signature chorused electric piano tone, and we're off! The band demands we turn their music on, again and again… and we certainly will in the coming years.
Duke works so well because it is basically Story #1 (out of four total) of Phil's breakup on record, and yet it has a pop gloss: the woo-ooh-oohs and falsettos of Misunderstanding, the repeated refrains of Turn It On Again. It also has other sounds Phil will choose to use over and over in the coming years, including the Roland 808 drum riff and the pounding roto-tom drum fill. The album featured smart short songs and even a suite which wasn't allowed to meander. Instead, there were frequently soaring and yet anguished vocals from Phil Collins.
The album Duke thus provided Genesis a bridge from the prog rock era to the 80's pop era, with its streamlined instrumental and melodic grace, while still offering a few longer jams to their fan base. It was as perfect as a Genesis album could be, and is indeed their best work. (The concurrently written songs from this era which adopt the style are often the best of their hidden jems as well).
The libretto of Duke is about a pop star undergoing an existential crisis. By this time, Phil is already standing in the rain for hours, a nebbish with whom we can empathize and identify. He sees the other man just leaving and he's willing to call it a misunderstanding if he can maintain the ideal of fidelity.
So, sure, he was white bread and boring from the start. I'm telling you, that was his charm. He wasn't a snake with a bulge in his pants or a disco dealer or a gender-bent flirt, he was an everyman with a receding hairline that just wanted reciprocity. He was real, and tender and sensitive.
This was the model of masculinity that seemed to make sense. He was chivalric and when he got burned he got back at you on record. He was an artist. He couldn't help but pour his pain into a microphone and pluck at the piano keys and pound at the skins. He faced you, pockmarks and all, directly, and asked you to take him at it. And he was a hell of a drummer in a band that now had its eyes on the prize. He was a driven man now. He would make her regret leaving him. No wonder the album was about a musician evaluating his place in the world! So was Phil, and the answer was to prove that success was indeed the best revenge.
Bottom line, it is that emotional thrust which explains Phil Collin's phenomenal rise to the top of the world's charts. Humans know when someone is telling the truth. It's in the tremor of the tone, the weep behind the words, the tears stayed with a kind of tightening of the stomach. There is what is held back, and then there is that little reflexive inhalation of air; and then it gushes forth like a torrent. It was his real-life heartbreak which was making his voice crack with that emotion. He was bare, broken, sometimes afraid, sometimes naked on record, confessing his utter abandonment to pathology in every inflection. It hurt, and you could hear it. Like anybody, he would call and call on the phone to the person who represented his whole world. When no one answered, he burned even hotter to communicate.
Soon after writing Duke, he was composing his solo album, Face Value. If Duke was a veiled description of his suffering, Face Value ripped away the veil and the band-aid. Undoubtedly, he had caught his wife cheating on him. I was there and I saw what you did, he snarls. Much of it was him at the piano, or with minimal accompaniment. Here was a raw wound, embarrassingly and shamefully vulnerable. If leaving me is easy, he whines, coming back is going to be harder. Please return to me, he implies, even as he passive-aggressively threatens the consequences. It's a warning tinged with the hope that she'll take the advice and avoid inflicting more of the heartbreak he's enduring. Sure, it was 'against all odds' (written in the same era) but it was all he had.
Now, bear in mind that I was in high school a little after the time this album was first released. In high school your musical formative memories are molded, some which you will remember, some of which you will forever pine to return to the rest of your days. Somehow, the utter devastation of Phil's love life resonated with teens of the time since everything that happens to teens is utterly devastating. And Phil, let's put it charitably, got wreked. Every love is for the ages, every promise ring a sign of love's total blind devotion to felicity for a teenager in love. Phil's belief in that had been betrayed, and it was apparent in every syllable he sang.
Remember also that people's tastes are often shaped by their formative years in a generational sense, and my generation grew up during the decade of ERA and women's rights as well as sexual freedom and liberation. It was sometimes a little confusing, certainly. The divorce rate was skyrocketing and men were now supposed to be sensitive to women while at the same time macho and attractive as providers. Role models were feminine and male hegemony was in retreat; the family unit as the source of social stability was often in disarray as traditional marriage roles were discarded. All of this was good for women, undoubtedly, but it was also formative for the men of the era who had to navigate seeming repulsion at their very natures with an ever more permissive culture where macho sexual power was often still prized. It was tricky, and the noble knight on the field of love who has fallen off his horse has nothing but himself to blame.
Oh, the sting of rejection! Everyone who has been in love only to see their heart broken knows this feeling: "What if the other person would just change their mind and come back and we'd be happy again?" Instead, of course, they invariably leave you deserted and questioning your existence.
Page Four of the Apostle's Guide to Phil Collins' Career
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