It was a hold-out, let’s be honest.
While Rhino Records can be commended for their massive Phil Collins reissue campaign — which has revealed each new remaster/bonus disc job out of order and in pairs of two, each with a present-day Collins recreating each of-the-era album cover — putting Face Value, Both Sides, Hello, I Must Be Going!, and the all-but-forgotten Dance Into the Light out first meant that, by comparison, the remaining four sets would suffer in comparison. Well, three sets, really, because despite the mixed feelings some fans have about … But Seriously, the crown jewel of the campaign was going to be the reissue of No Jacket Required, Collins’ Grammy-winning, world-swallowing monster smash that not only established him as a superstar but also, invariably, helped define what pop-rock sounded like in the ’80s. In fact, when people are thinking about ’80s pop music in general, they’re probably thinking about the sounds and textures that radiate out of the record hidden behind No Jacket Required‘s amber-red cover.
Yet, if this campaign has truly accomplished anything, it’s proven that outside of his hardcore fans (of which there are several), there’s truly not much of a need for a critical re-evaluation of the former Genesis front man, each new remastered set highlighting not only Collins’ nuanced understanding of how to craft agreeable, inoffensive pop music, but also his unending penchant for schmaltz. Given how much of this phase of the campaign focuses on the back end of his career, one can be forgiven for not necessarily rushing out to get the bonus discs for both 2002’s Testify and 2010’s soul-cover romp Going Back (here called The Essential Going Back, as Collins acknowledges in the liner notes that the original 18-track edition was just way too long). While Face Value and (surprisingly) Hello, I Must Be Going! have stood the test of time extremely well, most of the albums, which, yes, includes No Jacket Required, either tilt too far into the saccharine or feel trapped in the decade they hail from, which, especially in Jacket‘s case, is nothing short of unexpected.
While the remaster work on Jacket really helps remove some of the tinniness that came from the early CD compression versions of Collins’ catalog, No Jacket Required, even with chart-conquering spectacles like “Sussudio”, “One More Night”, and arguably the finest pop song he ever recorded, “Take Me Home”, relies on previously established tropes and artist templates. “Who Said I Would” comes off like a top-notch peak-era Prince knockoff, while “Only You Know and I Know” struts with a Duran Duran-esque synth-pop flair. Retaining the CD-era bonus track “We Said Hello Goodbye” was a wise choice, as for a disc that, in 2016, feels far more staid and hollow than one remembers, a solid mid-tempo power ballad helps ground Collins’ more emotional efforts, because while “One More Night” and “Take Me Home” do a lot of heavy lifting on this album, it’s still a losing battle when faced with tracks like “Don’t Lose My Number” and the lightweight-to-a-fault “Sussudio”.
While No Jacket Required is still a pitch-perfect time capsule of the era, Collins didn’t realize that the pop monster he created would soon start conquering the world on its own accord, the popularity of the record seeming to shy Collins away from any serious critical assessment of its weaker moments. Thus, on the live disc included here, so many of the live renditions of these Jacket numbers feature the horn sections right near the front of the mix, “Sussudio” in particular generating from a slower, more dynamic build before the horns absolutely take over. (The demos of tracks like “One More Night” and “Take Me Home” are great for true aficionados, but much like the demos from the previous set of re-releases, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between Collins’ demos and the finished product, save for a heckuva lot of polish.)
That horn fetishism creeped its way onto …But Seriously, and it helped add a much-needed live element to another album that felt very much like a studio creation, and one, it’s fair to say, still struggled to come up with its own identity after Jacket‘s gangbusters success. At times, the songs aped the Jacket formula a bit too closely, “Colours” copping a few too many poses from “Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore” and “All of My Life” following the structure of “One More Night” a little too close for comfort. Certainly, there are moments that stand out on their own, from the “Purple Rain”-styled guitar anthem “I Wish It Would Rain Down” to the vigorous Vegas romp that is “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, but when both “That’s Just the Way It Is” and “Do You Remember?” open with virtually identical drum machine loops, one wonders if Collins himself was struggling for inspiration.
The same, it could be said, for Testify, Collins’ last true pop album. Following his Oscar-winning success doing the soundtrack for Disney’s Tarzan, Collins could be forgiven for wanting to go back to the sound that helped define so much of his career, but in 2002, such deliberate nostalgia-driven pablum unfortunately doesn’t have any reason to culturally justify its own existence. “Come With Me” is a quiet electro ballad built around a child’s music box melody, and “Driving Me Crazy”, with its absolute stalker vibes, is more off-putting than it is endearing. The beat to “Swing Low” at least feels like something wholly new to the Phil Collins canon, borrowing some techniques from hip-hop after so many rappers (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony chief among them) borrowed drum breaks and melodies from him. However, Testify is more of a curiosity than an album proper, and even the most devout of Phil Collins fans have a hard time arguing the merits of this set.
Going Back, however, at least has its roots in a formula that worked, that “You Can’t Hurry Love” single from 1982 netting Collins his first-ever solo U.K. chart topper and paving the way for some well-timed covers throughout the course of his career. Many have derided Going Back as a mere vanity project, with Collins revisiting the old hits of his youth and doing close to little to add his own perspective or personality to them. It’s a pleasant, passable album, better now that it’s condensed to a far-more digestible 14 songs versus the original release’s 18. While Collins, always an able but far from extraordinary vocalist, doesn’t imprint much on tracks like “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, the production at least deserves to be highlighted, some tracks like “Going to a Go-Go” sounding less like contemporary records and instead evoking their original era eerily well.
Yet when taken all together, these four albums, still lovingly packaged and awash with fresh new liner notes, have not aged in any significantly satisfying way, No Jacket Required most especially uncomfortably pushing up against the boundaries of the decade. For completists, this is Christmas. For everyone else, it’s a set of mere curiosities laid out before them. We covered Collins’ true masterpiece in the last batch of re-releases (that being his debut album Face Value), and while there are still some surprises enmeshed deep in this new set (like Jacket’s sturdy rocker “Inside Out”), one can’t help but feel that this batch of re-releases exemplifies “lesser” Collins: popular at the time, interesting in approach, and heavy with historical significance, but lacking the artistic cohesion some have expected from him after his decades as a reliable hitmaker. Certainly, some fans may disagree, but when each set is taken on its own merits, that’s just the way it is.