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Lit and Crit
Phil Collins and
Continued from pg. 6
No wonder he became tiresome in the end. He had a vocal formula, he could have read the phone book and still captured our hearts given his previous authenticity. But the fire was cooling on it and we could tell. He was smart enough to mix things up with his RnB and prog-lite extensions, his guest work and concert tours, but for the most part he was an overexposed pop figure: everywhere, all the time.
It must have been the movie Buster, in 1988, though.That was the moment the wave broke for good. His management team suggested he go into acting and write songs that sounded nice over a shopping center loudspeaker, like Two Hearts or a cover of Groovy Kind of Love. It made a lot of sense. He could pull it off. They told him to put on fake 2 day stubble and fingerless gloves and mug like a tramp.
The Supremes cover on 'Hello' had been bouncy, but this was indeed the proverbial treacle of a man over the line into pastiche. Our mothers had warned us about this. I'm sure someone thought it was cute, but not necessarily anyone who formerly liked his music. He might have made it work if he had stuck it out, but he was ready to retire.
He snuck in another hit or two before he was completely kaput, of course. He still had that voice, the one we know as practically the voice of our own hearts on the sleeve; it is so familiar in its yearning. He occasionally still had that endearing effacement, that passionate calling out in the dark of the void for a human touch, which he was able to instill into a song as a guttural reflex.
He put it to work once more on 'Another Day In Paradise', a chart hit that was again inescapable on radio and in the supermarket. Yet it was a re-tread of the song 'Turn It Off' from No Jacket Required and Do You Know from Hello.
After this swan song on the charts, Phil started to fade in terms of the public's acceptance of his every utterance as genuine. The message was finally reaching even the heartland. A super-successful rock star reminding us that homelessness is bad fell somewhere on the hypocrite scale between an actor running for office and a model that in reality doesn't use her own name-branded skin cream.
Phil was a good guy, he had done the Secret Policemen's Balls, and yet the sentimentality was wearing thin. Probably this was exactly the kind of thing that drove his ex-wives nuts.
He put a stake in the heart of the whole thing with We Can't Dance, another piece of pop rock premeditated to appeal to children of all ages with a wink at how puerile it was. If they had named this album something else, like Dreaming While You Sleep, then maybe they could have sent the message that there was more to it. Instead, their lack of imagination seemed to be apparent in the fact that they would name the album after the silly lyrics of the silly single.
Sure, sensing a backlash, they tried to make fun of themselves to soften the blow. It almost worked. But perhaps taking that route was almost a kind of self-sabotage reflective of the fact that in his heart of hearts Phil wanted to slow down.
The album We Can't Dance is not as bad as it could be. It's a smorgasbord of what had worked for them in the past: ballads, big electro drums, pads to bathe Phil in like a bath, glossy production, one extended jam that works fairly well (a gesture of goodwill that they can sometimes capture the spark one more time, if slightly faded from use, of their prog roots).
WCD is in fact perhaps almost as good as Abacab but less important given the lack of urgency and risk. Why is Phil singing about 1800's miners, exactly? Why do electro drums seem to lack subtle expression in volume and tone?
Thus Collins settled into a comfortable pre-retirement, issuing one or three more albums (RnB, piano ballads, etc) and some sporadic soundtrack work, but for the most part he circled the drain of nostalgia for his own best work and endured bouts of comeback fever.
Both Sides was an attempt to return to his core piano ballad loving audience, but it flopped because it lacked a true catalyzing heartbreak, perhaps. Was he in fact on his third marriage by then? A real journalist would investigate, but I don't even want to know, honestly. It's depressing.
He got another hit in the 90s with the soundtracks to Tarzan (which freed him from coming up with lyrical content) and Brother Bear, but by then his hearing was going as well as his taste. (True Colors? God, deliver me from Cindy Lauper). His vocals have now acquired that mellow kid's movie soundtrack sound of casual grandeur at which Elton John also excels.
It all culminated, in my mind, the day I was with my dad and one of his friends going out to eat in 1993. His friend asked what kind of music I liked, and my dad answered for me that he knew I liked Phil Collins and Genesis. I winced while agreeing to save face for my father. He was officially uncool and would have to be denied like Peter denying his Christ for awhile. Meanwhile, Peter Gabriel's world music initiative was in full bloom anyway.
Still, the point is: for a time there in the 80s, Phil Collins was indeed a real thing for a real reason. History and the sales records and Mike Tyson doing the drums to In The Air Tonight in the movie The Hangover attest to that. No one can talk about the 80s and music without mention of Phil. Yet, today that essential knowledge of the past is being lost in a sea of internet snark and smarm. Or smark. Or Snarmk.
Someone has to testify that for a brief moment he was honest and true, and it really did happen once upon a time. I realize now, I must be that person. There's tears in my eyes as I type this.
Time has passed, these are just memories, a record of what it felt like to be alive in the Phil Collins era. As I reach the golden age of 50, digesting the first fifty years of musical food, puzzling out and understanding my own lifetime becomes more and more important to me. Those songs are links to times and places, people and emotions. As it was happening, the outcome was uncertain, though now in retrospect it is all set in stone, as though things were always inevitable.
From that aged stone, a monument must be chiseled. Turns out that Phil has indeed written his own version of the story, available on Amazon, and now there is some kind of nostalgia brewing. (This is why we will see at least one Phil Collins revival before his death.)
I too want to preserve this record of the facts for future generations, so that they may know the facts. I bequeath you these album reviews.
Take them, and spread the word for the sake of our children's children, that they may know what was done and said on these Phil Collins albums, recorded during the magical time that was the 1980's, before the robots started their inevitable rise to domination of the earth and its inhabitants.Verily, it was a time when a man could still stand naked before the world and sell millions of records at the same time.
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