With 1981’s Abacab, Genesis had shed most of their progressive sensibilities, becoming more and more acquainted with commercial success. Banks, Collins and Rutherford released their self-titled follow-up two years later, which, after a period of divided songwriting in the post-Gabriel years, credited all songs to the collective trio. Though it can hardly be considered fine taste for any prog rock connoisseur, Genesis does come out slightly stronger than its predecessor.
Opener Mama runs on little more than a heavy drum machine and eerie synthesizer, Collins moving in and out of the mix with desperation-laden vocals. It’s a fairly un-poppy way to start, building definite potential, but the happily bouncing melody of That’s All is worlds apart, creating a staggering contrast between the record’s first two tracks; too many songs tend to go off into entirely different directions.
There are the obligatory ballad inclusions, of course (Taking It All Too Hard), along with a mix of material that’s not as serious-minded. The latter category ranges from pretty entertaining (Just a Job to Do) to just plain silly (Illegal Alien). The most ‘progressive’ piece is Home by the Sea/Second Home by the Sea. Part one throws more classic pop hooks into action, and good ones at that, whereas part two provides the much-needed instrumental stretch. A great suite, but admittedly one that cannot live up to similar compositions on Duke.
Even if they were on their way to recording a masterful pop album in 1986, Genesis hadn’t really been able to regain their footing at this point. The group’s 12th LP is decent at best, again lacking a real sense of direction. Despite a few memorable tunes, it is unworthy of its title.
Genesis’ absolute pop peak. Whereas Abacab was largely an experimental laboratory, Genesis finds the group taking all of the lessons and discoveries of before and synthesizing them into a shiny, beautiful pop masterpiece. If you’ve come to believe that nothing good could come from the mouth or mind of Phil, THIS is the place to go to wean yourself off of that idea. Whereas on previous albums, Phil’s vocals were quite often a liability, his singing throughout is quite possibly the most impressive technical feature of the album. Also, the band’s use of drum machines has finally reached a point where its incessant use can be fully justified – not once on the whole album do they become annoying, and in several places, they are positively genial. And finally, these melodies mostly RULE – only one or two of the songs sag at all, and the rest will get stuck in your head for hours on end (and even better, you’ll WANT these songs stuck in your head!).
First of all – Collins-era Genesis doesn’t get any better than Mama. I know I said in the previous review that Abacab was probably the finest synth pop number ever written, but Mama I can’t even necessarily classify as pop – it’s far too angry and heated throughout for me to feel comfortable calling it synth-pop (though maybe I should, in which case, Mama wins the synth-pop dominance competition). But whatever may be, one listen to Mama could single-handedly remove all predjudices with regard to pop Genesis. For one thing, the drum machine programming is absolutely incredible – it’s a menacing little shuffle, a combination of what almost sound like maracas and some rhythmic pounding, not to mention some omnious sounds from Tony’s keys in the background to build up the tension. And then there’s Phil, who demonstrates quite aptly that almost NOBODY can beat him when it comes to singing pissed-off songs of love and lust (too bad he so rarely writes songs like that …). From his scary “ha-ha’s” to the way he’s able to scream out his desperation for the woman in question, this is by far the best vocal performance that Collins would ever give as lead vocalist for the band, and in and of itself would make the song a classic. But the way it all combines … damn. Damn.
Of course, the rest of the album can’t really hope to live up to such an amazing beginning, but it nearly does nevertheless. Only one of the songs I would count as definite filler, the closing It’s Gonna Get Better. The verses have some interesting stuff going on in them, with a bizarre keyboard-strings pattern underpinning parts of it, but there’s a large stretch in the middle that’s way too obviously influenced by Collins and that has the audacity to feature him going into falsetto. To a lesser extent, though, I could say the same thing about Taking it All Too Hard – it’s not bad, and is fairly well developed, but … well, the best way I can put it is that, by this point, when Collins is singing a song that doesn’t have a good amount of drive or energy or bounce, it’s hard to avoid the stench of banality. It could be a lot worse than it is in this case, but again, it could be better.
Fortunately, I have virtually no complaints about the rest of the album. EVERY one of the other songs is a stone-cold Genesis classic, pop or no pop. That’s All was the biggest hit of the album, and deservedly so, as the melody is probably the catchiest in the batch from start to finish (though I must note that the “head down to my toes” hook reminds me a bit too much of a hook from a track off of Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, I forget which song at the moment). But egads, Silver Rainbow sure isn’t any worse, and might be better. The cute little piano riff that drives forward the song rules, the vocal melody is ingenious, and the chorus soars!! It is easily my second favorite on the album, and I consider it a shame they didn’t end the album on this note.
There’s also a pair of more up-tempo numbers, and they’re just as fun. Illegal Alien may have a somewhat dippy topic (and the accompanying picture of the band in the sleeve is atrocious), but Phil’s vocal delivery is hilarious throughout, and you just have to admit that chorus is fun to sing along to. And, of course, there’s Just a Job To Do, which I absolutely adore and so should you. I don’t like synth horns anymore than the next man, but they’re completely appropriate in the way Tony uses them, and the melody is, per usual, positively incredible. The lyrics also rule mightily here, looking into the mind of a hired hitman who knows that his future victims are scared out of their wits since they know he’s around.
Now, what puts off many fans with regard to this album is the centerpiece of the album, and arguably the only trace of “progressive” to be found throughout, the Home by the Sea/Second Home by the Sea suite. Now, what obviously bothers most people of the suite is the Second chunk, where Tony and Mike decide to putter around a bit over a drum loop. The thing is, I know that from a technical standpoint, there’s almost nothing to it, but I have absolutely no problems with this instrumental passage – it’s very engaging in its simplicity, moving through some perfectly enjoyable and memorable passages with no problem. Ironic, isn’t it? As soon as Genesis stopped trying to make their jamming pointlessly complex (since they were theoretically required to do so by the ‘tenents’ of progressive), I suddenly learned to enjoy their lengthy instrumental parts! But whatever – the main melody is fairly complex, sure, but it rules. So there.
This is a great album. If you’re only a fan of the prog Genesis, you’ll probably hate it, but I hope so very much that you can overcome any “anti-pop” bias and enjoy this collection of great pop. Enjoy it – it’s also the last good album Genesis would ever make.
If you needed indisputable proof, here it is. Listen to Phil Collins sing in “Mama,” and try to convince yourself that he wasn’t a great singer. He might have eventually become a tiresome pop figure in the ’80s, but you’ve got to respect the man after hearing him belt it out for that song. Not only does he yell-sing in an incredibly soaring way, but he sounds to me like he’s genuinely hurting. (“It’s hot, too hot for me mama / But I can hardly wait / My eyes they’re burning mama / And I can feel my body shake / Don’t stop, don’t stop me mama / Oh make the pain, make it go away / No I won’t hurt you mama / But it’s getting so hard”) Ouch …And what’s with those devilish laughs he belts out in the refrains? That’s pretty freaky, man…
Of course that’s an excellent song besides the vocal performance and the lyrics. It proves once again how excellent these guys were at operating drum machines. They’re quiet and ominous in the first half of the song before they suddenly grow very loud and quite threatening, which positively sends shivers of electricity down my spine. Tony Banks comes up with some compelling synthesizers to play deeply in the background, which sets the menacing mood quite fittingly. Of course the whole thing is very ’80s, but as I’m listening to that song, it makes me want to redeem the entire decade. It’s that strong. (I’ll probably rescind that statement once I get around to reviewing Mike + The Mechanics albums!)
If “Mama” freaked you out too much, then don’t worry; they follow it up with a much more pleasant pop-song, “That’s All.” …I really just like that song because it’s catchy as hell, but of course they do a few delightful, ear-dazzling things there with the instrumentation. Banks plays a pleasant and bouncy piano riff, which is backed-up well with a mid-tempo and texturally evolving drum machine pattern. Rutherford earns some kudos for bringing in a bright and bubbly guitar solo right at the end. …Really, there’s a lot going on with the instrumentation, and it’s futile for me to try to describe everything! You’ll just have to listen to it, if you haven’t already.
If those songs weren’t enough for you, I also love “Illegal Alien.” It managed to cause some controversy over the years, because people apparently didn’t get that it’s supposed to be satirical. I’m quite pleased with them for coming out with lyrical matter this biting; it’s right up there with the sophistication of Randy Newman’s also oft-misunderstood bits of satire: “Yellow Man,” “Rednecks,” and “Short People.” …Oh, and did I mention that “Illegal Alien” is catchy as hell? Tony Banks deserves some special recognition for playing a few extremely memorable lines with that quirky, wobbly high-pitched synthesizer.
“Home By the Sea” might not have quite as much ear candy as the previous three songs I mentioned, particularly Banks’ synthesizers, which are appropriately atmospheric but kinda blank. However, it’s melody is very catchy and growlingly delivered by Collins once again. “Just a Job to Do” has a driving rhythm to it, and I particularly enjoy hearing Collins scream “With a bang bang bang!!!” and then hearing it immediately followed up with two loud raps from a drum machine. (Amusing!) “Silver Rainbow” has a really wonderful and strangely uplifting chorus. …I’m also not sure how he did it, but Tony Banks finds some really odd keyboard chords to play through it, and I’m surprised they got away with it. The drum machines there are also so rumbly that they’re epic.
Despite all the strong pop songs on here, there are a few numbers that don’t have as much of a liking for. “Home By the Sea” was great, but I can’t say the same thing for “Second Home By the Sea.” It’s mostly an instrumental and unfortunately it’s plagued with a hollow drum machine texture that gets rather tiresome to me. “Taking it All Too Hard” is a fitful Phil Collins ballad, but it doesn’t manage to strike my particular fancy. I like the closing song “It’s Gonna Get Better,” in particular some of Banks’ synthesizer textures, but it’s a relatively weak ending to a much stronger album.
But those are just nitpicks in the end, and they don’t matter. I’ll say that they are at least decent songs anyway, and they hardly detract from the overall experience of Genesis. Naturally, this isn’t quite as powerful or entrancing as their classic prog outings, but I think I made it abundantly clear by now that those days were long behind them. In my book, this pop album earns its place in Genesis’ discography as one of the highlights.
Drum machine sound greets you from the very beginning of the album on ‘Mama’, and you immediately get the uncomfy feeling that this is going to be Abacab vol. 2 – synth/drum machine experimentation over clumsy melodies and not less clumsy singing. Well then, wrong you are (actually, I was wrong too, so that’s a self-insult rather than anything else). The album is a huge step up from Abacab. Well, not exactly huge if we judge by the actual song quality, but huge, I’d say, in the mental sphere. This album has no progressive ambitions at all. Sure, the lyrics are still cleverer and more entertaining than Fleetwood Mac, but apart from that, it’s all fast, enjoyable, hummable pop.
And you know what? They’ve finally matured into writing catchy numbers – it took them about fifteen years to do so, but you can’t get away from the fact! Oh, I know this ain’t serious, but this ain’t banal, either, and at least they’re not repeating themselves – the melodies are pretty original, and the hooks are there, polished and shining like little gold doorhands. Just a good pop album. Loads of bands were working in the same style by the time, but Genesis were certainly ahead of everybody else simply because they were more experienced. As lifeless as some of these arrangements are in theory, there’s enough conviction and energy to convince you that this should work despite all odds; and it does.
Yup, there’s practically no audible guitar on this album, and I doubt whether Phil ever really took up a drumstick, but Tony has been tamed enough to refrain from overlong, pointless synth noodlings a la Wind And Wuthering and mostly sticks to playing amusing little passages (except for the nearly-instrumental ‘Second Home By The Sea’ where the band takes a foolish decision to, er, ‘jam’ – I guess I should call it a ‘jam’, even though it certainly ain’t one in the real sense of the word); the drum machines aren’t annoying (in comparison, the murky sequence on ‘Keep It Dark’ has always spoiled my feelings towards that song), and the atmosphere is pleasant and inviting, with a slight touch of humour and intelligence.
Out of the songs you probably know the hit ‘That’s All’, and it is indeed the damn funniest and most memorable tune on the album, with one of my favourite Tony Banks organ solos of all time (and that’s because he actually follows the insanely endearing catchy rhythmic pattern of the song instead of sprawling all over the place). But I could also name ‘Mama’, a brilliant love-and-hate song that Phil pulls off in his best, ‘screaming’ manner, with some frightening ‘ha-ha’s on the way; the dark, grimy atmosphere of the number swoops you inside, and if there IS a place to truly appreciate Phil’s vocal stylizations, it’s here. It is somewhat similar to ‘In The Air Tonight’, one of Phil’s best solo compositions, but it’s far more piercing and frightening.
Minor highlights include the anti-anti-immigration song ‘Illegal Alien’ with its almost nursery refrain (and rather biting lyrics, I’d say); the consolative ‘Taking It All Too Hard’ where they manage to hit those incredible notes (in the refrain) that, combined with Phil’s tone, give the song a unique feeling of gentleness and passion (if you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, compare this with the refrain to ‘No Reply At All’: it’s the same impression); the rambunctious Killer Anthem ‘Just A Job To Do’; and the gorgeous ballad ‘Silver Rainbow’ (if you’re not able to appreciate the lines where Phil sings ‘you won’t know where you’re coming or you’re going…’, the only thing I can say is you have a way too hard alergy on synth-pop).
All of these have solid melodies in them, and, like I said, you can’t deny the lyrics: even the love songs are really deep and psychological. Maybe it had something to do with Phil’s personal traumas and experience (his recent divorce, etc.), but I really don’t know much about that period in their lives, so forgive me beforehand.
It has a few downsides, of course: a couple songs are below average, like the closing boggy ‘It’s Gonna Get Better’, typical optimistic filler to close the album with; and the lengthy ‘Home By The Sea/Second Home By The Sea’ has never managed to fascinate me. Also, if you suddenly take a foolish decision to put this record on right after (or before) Foxtrot, you’ll get a nervous breakdown which is certainly bad for your health and even worse for the development of your musical taste. It’s like listening to Bridges To Babylon right after Sticky Fingers. Something like that.
Still, I insist that if you listen to all of Genesis albums in chronological order, you won’t even notice the smooth transgression from the 1971-72 level onto what they had metamorphosed into in a decade – all of the changes were occurring so slowly and gradually that each album starting from Selling England and ending with Genesis (and further, too) sounds just a wee bit different from its predecessor, but cannot be said to not possess any tight links with it. And if you try to follow that development, be sure not to get guided entirely by the genre trappings (like, ‘this is prog and I like it’, ‘oh no, this is pop and I hate it’, or vice versa, you know), and you might come to regard these early Eighties albums as high as I do.
Good work, boys! This is certainly their best since Trick Of The Tail, and it shows how Phil’s songwriting skills have matured at this point.