“I don’t understand it,” he says, looking pained. “I’ve become a target for no apparent reason. I only make the records once; it’s the radio that plays them all the time. I mean, the Antichrist? But it’s too late. The die is cast as to what I am.”
— Phil Collins, 2011, Rolling Stone Interview.
Phil Collins was once one of the most hated figures in all of pop music. Everyone from David Bowie to Roger Waters to Noel and Liam Gallagher has aired grievances against him. Even Sir Paul McCartney reportedly slighted him when Collins asked him to sign a biography of the Beatles, saying to his then wife, “Oh, Heather, our little Phil is a bit of a Beatles fan.” The hate for Collins comes largely from his middle-of-the-road megahits in the 1980s — the aural equivalent of Thatcher’s England and Reagan’s America in our shared cultural memory. There were some suspect personal issues as well. Collins was perceived as an unfortunate conservative because he went on record saying that he’d leave England if the Labour Party got into power because he didn’t want to pay taxes. There was also the ever-persistent rumor that he divorced one of his wives over a fax.
But 2016 has marked a resurgence for Phil Collins. Not only has he seemingly come out of retirement, but he’s published a memoir, reissued his albums, and collected all 45 of his singles into this release. And it seems too that Phil Collins is finally cool. Whether it be kinder appraisals in the press, co-signs from various hip-hop artists, or performing a gripping version of “In the Air Tonight” with the Roots on the Tonight Show, Collins is enjoying some rewards for his labor. Critical approval is an ever fickle thing, and it seems more and more that pop culture treats its perceived villains with some levity if they hang around long enough. The question now, for us, is: was Phil Collins’s critical revilement appropriate? Was his music subpar? Or, was the vitriol directed against him misguided antiestablishment anger because he was one of the 1980s most commercially successful and ubiquitous artists?
Phil Collins is an undeniably talented musician with a gifted and distinctive singing voice. At his best moments, he creates something that feels identifiably new, like with “In The Air Tonight” or its stranger, more sinister sequel “Thru These Walls”. He reaches near-greatness cribbing Motown’s sturdy songwriting with his effervescent cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love”. And he can make pretty transcendent if schmaltzy ballads like “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”. There are also some interesting songwriting quirks, such as his propensity to introduce a chorus as a motif at the beginning of a song, before the first verse, as some truly Beatlesque melodies are sprinkled in a good number of the songs.
But apart from two singular songs and some other fine moments, Singles represents some of the most fabricated pop music of any era. Let’s make some contemporary comparisons: Collins feels as hamfisted as Katy Perry in his bombast and about as sincere as Chainsmokers or Calvin Harris. These songs were not created to stand the test of time: their rigid formula, trendy sonic textures, and often monolithic lengths firmly entrench them in the 1980s. Collins’s lyrics too often operate within stock pop music verbiage that, paired too often with his overwrought anthems and painful cribbing of soul singing, become an endless slog to get through with back to back listening.
Another disappointing feature is how Collins was wholly comfortable being a ripoff artist. His huge hit,“ Sussudio”, openly takes from Prince’s “1999” in melody and instrumentation. Same goes for the later single “Wear My Hat”, which is a terrible impression of Graceland era Paul Simon, even down to his vocal phrasing, 10 years too late. The main criticism that Collins earns here is that his potential, espoused on early singles like “In The Air Tonight” or “Thru These Walls”, was never fully met elsewhere in his catalog. And that’s either due to his apprehension at revealing himself as he did in these two songs or because of his clear interest in chasing trends and making hits. Or both.
If Collins had announced a formal retirement after “In the Air Tonight”, his legacy would have been cemented forever, such is the power of the song. It’s a progenitor for so much great music — from Tears for Fears to Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak. “In the Air Tonight” is Collins’s most experimental song, with a drifting synth palette, unconventional vocal layering, and a deep understanding of dynamics. It also contains one of the most legendary drum fills in the rock canon. Its lyrics are of particular note, as they describe someone that Collins hates so much that he wouldn’t save them from drowning. It’s powerful sincerity — —the kind of thing that was not only influential for West, but very much the antecedent to someone like Drake, whose 2011 classic “Marvin’s Room” is hard to imagine without the kind of seething emotion Collins expresses here. “In the Air Tonight” is no doubt one of the most famous songs of the ‘80s, but it’s also one of its most formidable. Total greatness.
The other notable song here, “Thru These Walls”, is clearly a self-conscious sequel to “In the Air Tonight”. Its synthesis of electronic percussion with live instrumentation is maybe even more sophisticated as “Tonight”’s epic drum fills become the pulse for the song’s incredible verses. The lyrics are even darker, jumping into the perspective of a man who listens to his neighbors having sex and desires to have sex of his own. As the song resolves itself, it humanizes the protagonist and becomes a brilliant portrait of toxic masculinity. The song has a creative structure, often calling Collins to switch up his vocal phrasing and singing style per section. “Thru These Walls” and “In the Air Tonight” illustrate a deft hand that isn’t present on the other 43 songs collected here. They point to an artistically rewarding direction that Collins could have gone on, if only he wanted to.
But he didn’t. More than maybe any other pop star of the era, aside from perhaps Madonna, who by her very nature was much more disruptive, Collins wanted to be a star. He took Genesis to sellout status whereas the more mercurial Peter Gabriel once tried to synthesize English literature and rock music. He went from playing drums on Brian Eno records to stealing the gated reverb drum effect that sprang up prominently on the Eno-assisted classic Low by David Bowie. He chose to chase fads and crib tricks from any artist that had Top 10 hits whether it be the Supremes, the Beatles, Prince, or Paul Simon. He wanted to be loved. And he got that love. It was given to him in record sales. The underground and the Culture of “Cool” threw Collins out the window as the decades ensued, but, after listening to these 45 songs, it’s pretty clear that they were right. Phil Collins certainly faces gripes and slights on an epic level, but he does so in his Swiss fortress filled with his Civil War memorabilia, all paid for by his relentless chart chasing. He’s gotten what he’s deserved.