That’s how long it took Philip David Charles Collins to figure out he needed to “go back”.
And he really needed it. Testify, his last full-length release, came out in 2002. That’s a long time ago. Critics reacted harshly to the music – nothing new for Collins, a singer, songwriter, drummer, and multi-instrumentalist who’s been unfairly dogged as a pop sellout his whole career. One camp has always wanted to crucify him for de-weirding Genesis when he replaced Peter Gabriel as vocalist in 1975; the other just wants blood for “Sussudio” and the Tarzan soundtrack. OK, so he’s put out a couple duds or maybe eight – no one’s going to argue that songs like “Another Day in Paradise” and “Two Hearts” are anything grander than pleasing, lightweight pop radio fluff – but writing off Phil Collins as a slick balladeer with only an ear for quick gold is like judging Michael Jordan by his Hanes commercials. In both cases, you’re ignoring a treasure trove of ability. Even at his poppiest, Collins’ songs are brimming with musicality, undeniable hooks, innovative production (especially that huge, Hugh Padgham gated drum sound), and some of the most powerful, jaw-dropping drum performances ever recorded (is anyone even going to try to argue that the monstrous break during “In the Air Tonight” isn’t the greatest drum moment in rock history?).
The cold critical reaction to Testify wasn’t a surprise, but this time around, he didn’t have any hit singles to prop up in his defense, with the album failing to make a substantial impact on either the UK or US pop charts. Since then, the media has only grown colder, especially with his personal life: the tabloids had a field day with his most recent divorce and the borderline $50 million he paid his former wife in settlement. But for all the scrutiny poured upon him from outsiders, Collins has always seemed to be his toughest critic. An artist who has sold 100 million solo albums and 150 million with his former band, he often shows a surprising lack of confidence in his abilities, downplaying his musical merits in interviews, constantly shocked at a word of praise or seed of implied influence from emerging artists.
“I think I’m going back to the things I learned so well in my youth…”
“I think I’m returning to all those days when I was young enough to know the truth…”
You can’t listen to Going Back without asking a few questions first. Namely, “What’s the point?” For his newest album, Collins does indeed “go back”, specifically, to the heyday of Motown. What? One of the pioneers of British prog and cheesy 80s ballads making a Motown record? But how? Really, though, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Collins has always found ways of injecting soulful sounds into his music; from the Earth, Wind, & Fire horn sections to the deeply felt, passionate vocal performances in songs like Genesis’ “Mama”, Collins has never been afraid to belt. Plus, he had one of his biggest hits with his version of “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes.
This would all make perfect sense if Collins sought out to bring something new to the songs. But, according to the press release, his ultimate goal for the project was to “recapture the sound and the feelings (he) got from listening to these songs the first time around”. He has made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want to bring anything new to the songs, that he wanted them to sound exactly the same. Which explains why he hired bassist Bob Babbitt and guitarists Eddie Willis and Ray Monette, the three still-living members of the Motown session collective, The Funk Brothers, to bring their old school feel to the recordings.
The first sound you hear in opener “Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)” is a live-sounding, condensed drum break that sounds like it could have come straight from the original Temptations recording from 1964. There’s a little more finesse to the percussion (this is Phil, after all), a lowering of the key, and a touch of extra spice in the horns, but, by and large, from the bled-together production to the pitch-perfect performances, this is some real time machine shit – an old, white, culturally unhip Englishman belting Motown like it’s his last breath. If Collins’ goal was indeed to recreate the songs faithfully and pay homage with utmost sincerity and passion, he’s achieved a musical miracle.
For the listening community, many may wonder why these songs need to exist. Fanatics will obviously want to own this album (and they do – it debuted at #1 in the UK) probably just for an excuse to buy a Phil Collins album and hear his voice again. Motown fanatics might make the purchase out of sheer curiosity and for an excuse to say, “The originals are better!” But what’s the point in that? Phil Collins isn’t asking anyone to buy this album, and at age 59, veteran of many a critical bitchslap, likely isn’t looking to win over journalists. He simply made the album he always wanted to make, on his own terms, with the people he wanted to make it with.
There are a few new, subtle touches peppered throughout Going Back that reveal themselves with close listening, particularly the funked-up instrumentation on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and some minor melodic flourishes from Phil behind the microphone. There are no particularly new revelations. Fact is, these were damn good songs back in the 60s, and they’re damn good songs now. Collins fares most gloriously on upbeat tracks like “Loving You is Sweeter than Ever” and the undeniable groove in “Talkin’ About My Baby”, where Collins demonstrates his smooth falsetto. The least interesting tunes are ballads like “Blame it on the Sun” and “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer”, where the infectious production dries out a tad and the mood is more emotive than infectious.
The album ends with “Going Back”, the song which serves as the album’s calling card — a reflection of the joys and freedoms of childhood and how, as an adult, it’s difficult to recapture them. It could have easily served as Going Back‘s opening number, setting the tone for the whole reminiscent project. Instead, it functions as the official closing of a musical chapter.
The sole track featuring a new Collins arrangement, “Going Back” was originally “Goin’ Back”, written by husband and wife songwriting team Gerry Goffin and Carole King, originally performed by artists like The Byrds and Dusty Springfield (who recorded the most famous version). The Phil Collins version tops them all. Listen to the passion in his voice when he delivers the line, “Now there are no games to only pass the time/No more electric trains, no more trees to climb”. You can practically hear the tears welling in his eyes.
Collins has been vocal about the fact that this could be his last album. Physically, drumming is becoming a burden (after suffering nerve damage in his hands, he was forced to record his drum parts for Going Back with his sticks taped to his hands), and he’s finally starting to settle into the role of “Dad”, reveling in day-to-day chores like picking up his kids from school. You can’t blame him. After years of public scrutiny and grueling touring, a break from the music business is a logical step. Going Back is a bold “Fuck you!” to his critics, without even really trying to be one. It’s an album that shows an artist – a real artist – following his heart. What more could you ask for?
The title track ends in a calm – Collins, floating in a soulful bath of piano, tambourine, and finger snaps, repeating the words to himself, like a mantra: “I’m going back…I’m going back”. The track fades.
Can you see him? Phil Collins, eyes closed, at the piano, finally at peace with himself and his music.