I’m sure there are plenty of places that people would love to hear Phil Collins go back to. Sitting behind Peter Gabriel in a reunited Genesis, maybe. Or back to Brand X. Back to obscurity, even. But back to the studio to record dozens of Motown and ‘60s soul classics? That couldn’t have been high on the list.
And yet here we are with Going Back, Phil’s latest and laziest solo album. Shockingly, despite his omnipresence on the radio during the ‘80s, this is only the eighth Collins solo album — and it comes a whopping eight years after his last release, Testify. Like a number of unimaginably wealthy rock stars his age, Phil has lost his will to create; he knows he’s never going to be as popular as he was at his peak, and although he seems just fine with that, he isn’t willing to record new music just so the public can ignore it. (He’s also falling apart — a lifetime at the drum kit has left him with a surgically repaired back, and hands that can’t grip the drumsticks.)
So what’s a guy left to do with his recording career if he can’t be bothered to record new stuff? Well, if he’s Phil Collins, he rounds up a crowd of top-shelf studio musicians (including Funk Brothers Eddie Willis and Bob Babbitt) and rolls tape on one of the most slavishly faithful covers albums ever made. Collins has said it was his “intention to make an ‘old’ record, not a ‘new’ record,” and he’s succeeded on that front — though some of these recordings, particularly the ballads, sound AC radio-ready, much of Going Back sounds like Phil Collins singing along with a Motown greatest hits CD in his bedroom. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “Heat Wave,” “Take Me in Your Arms”…they’re all here. And more.
As a creative exercise, in other words, Going Back doesn’t even exist. It isn’t that Collins wasn’t trying to bring anything new to these songs — he was actively trying not to add his stamp. He just wanted to have a karaoke party, and if Atlantic Records was willing to cut him a check for the privilege of trying to sell it to his remaining fans, so much the better. On the surface, Going Back is exactly the kind of album I love to hate.
I turned 36 this year, which means I’ve spent more than a quarter of a century as a devoted music fanatic. Somewhere around eight or nine years old, I caught the bug, and ever since, I’ve devoted countless hours (and dollars) to the pursuit of that magical neural rush that comes with musical discovery. There are plenty of albums I’ve returned to over the years, and I love them too, but there’s nothing like hearing something wonderful for the first time. That’s a big part of why I love writing about music — I spend 99 percent of my listening time absorbing new stuff, and it still excites me.
This year, though, for the first time, I noticed a huge jump in the level of comfort I take from going back to the records I loved as a kid. And I was a Top 40-loving child of the ‘80s, too, so these aren’t exactly classic albums we’re talking about — but at a certain point, I think every music lover gets locked in nostalgia’s orbit, and although I’m always sort of shocked to find myself setting my media player’s filter for the mid-to-late ‘80s and hitting “random”…I’m never really surprised.
All of which is to say that I understand why Phil Collins wanted to record Going Back, and if someone came along and offered to give me a pile of money to perform the songs I loved as a kid, I’d absolutely take them up on it. They wouldn’t be as closely Xeroxed as Phil’s, but again, I understand the motivation; I understand the nostalgic craving to wrap yourself in memories and tunnel back to simpler times. And I can appreciate the impeccable musicianship that went into these performances, as well as the level of insane dedication that led Collins to tape drumsticks to his hands just so he could play along with the band.
I’m conflicted about Going Back, honestly. Is it a hollow record? I think it is. Yet I don’t think it’s possible to play these tracks without hearing the bittersweet echo of the love of music that led the younger, more driven Collins to omnimegasuperstardom in the first place. It’s a weird record, one whose arrangements evoke the originals even as Collins’ vocals remind you of his “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Groovy Kind of Love” pantomimes, and I can’t say I’d recommend buying it; if you’re really into these songs, you should stick with the originals, and I think Collins would agree. But all the same, if you do find it necessary to buy Going Back (or the Deluxe or Ultimate editions), I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed. It’s an album that does precisely what it sets out to do, and every minute of it reverberates with Collins’ love for the material. There’s something to be said for that.
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