I would not have thought it possible that No Jacket Required would sound like a sparkling pop album in 2010. The paradigm for the Sparkling Pop Album has shifted in favor of youth. Part of NJR’s charm is listening to a dorky never-been having fun with sampling keyboards, a mixing board, effects pedals, and a surprisingly well syncopated Earth, Wind & Fire horn section. Collins sought a context in an MTV-defined marketplace, and found what eluded a lot of his trad-rock peers: stick to what you know, but update it sonically. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t listen to new music: like fellow thirtysomething Stevie Nicks, he heard Prince once and liked it (“Sussudio”); like a lot of English performers, Peter Gabriel’s drum sound bewitched him: note how the rhythm track for “Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore” mimics Gabriel’s “No Self-Control.” One example of big beat angst works (“I Don’t Wanna Know”), the other doesn’t (“Don’t Lose My Number,” which epitomizes why lots of people wanted to punch his jaw). I don’t particularly enjoy “One More Night,” but Collins and co-producer Hugh Padgham carve a space for Collins’ bathos out of monotony: the singer’s multitracked harmonies, a three-note melody line elaborated upon by Collins’ keyboards and that oh-so-rote eighties rhythm guitar lick.
Speaking of keyboards: studying the credits of this and …But Seriously (Collins was big in the Soto household; I also own the 45 for “Sussudio”), I realized that this drummer plays all of them. A considerable part of what renders his good solo material listenable is his way with the ivories, or, rather, how he programmed them. Face Value’s “This Must Be Love” is a good example of how Collins understood the possibilities of the Prophet 5 keyboard almost as well as Gabriel and Kate Bush; he gets it to sound as if it were another harmony vocal. NJR has lots of examples of Collins’ skill at integrating the Prophet and the Oberheim-X (“Long Long Way To Go,” a more sophisticated cousin of Genesis’ “Man on the Corner” and Collins’ later see-no-evil-hear-no-evil homeless plaint “Another Day in Paradise”).
Has any other megastar ever developed his career so shrewdly? Think about it: a bald, frumpy middle-aged Brit was the biggest male star on the planet for a few years running. Starting in benign anonymity as drummer for an English prog rock band whose every album until 1992’s We Can’t Dance outsold its predecessor, he stepped to the microphone after the departure of its beloved lead singer for the US breakthroughs “Follow You, Follow Me” and “Misunderstanding.” In between he did well-regarded session work for the likes of Brian Eno. He releases a hushed, self-effacing solo album that compensates for its absence of vocal charisma with a walloping drum sound. By 1984 he’s hit Number One for the first time with a well-structured movie ballad and nominated for a songwriting Oscar. Serious about his journeyman roots, he produces Adam Ant’s solo debut, Eric Clapton, ABBA singer Frida (her lone US hit “There’s Something Going On,” which I reviewed here, deserves tons more airplay), and, most spectacularly, EW&F’s heaven-kissed singer’s Chinese Walls, whose “Easy Lover” is a model of hamfisted eighties formula-rock. From this moment forward Collins has the invisible touch, scoring six more US Number Ones and tons of Genesis hits until his determined dorkiness clashed with the grunge era’s youth fetish upon the release of Both Sides in 1993. His only salvation is an anonymous hack ballad from a Disney movie that lands him the Oscar he thought he needed as validation.
I’m not defending Collins as an overlooked master. Like Paul McCartney his video and public persona is several shades of unctuous and creepy; he’s like the kid in sixth grade whose parents and teachers reminded him of how talented he was. What I want to make clear is how those huge Collins and Genesis hits straddled all kinds of pop music taboos.