Face Value

Phil Collins

Atlantic Records, 1981


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


[Adapted from a review originally appearing on On The Town Magazine on 9/17/96]

Why has emotional agony been the wellspring of more artistic triumphs than almost any other aspect of personal experience? Does intense pain reveal hidden truths that, when expressed in art, resonate louder and longer among our fellow humans than anything else we could ever produce? Or does the audience become so swept up in sympathy for the performer under such circumstances that any flaws in their output are immediately forgiven?

In 1981, Phil Collins was best known as the long-time drummer for British art-rock lions Genesis, a background vocalist and player who had just a few years before been suddenly thrust into the role of singer/frontman with Peter Gabriel's departure from the band. No one knew quite what to expect from Collins' first solo outing, though the appearance of doo-wop background vocals and the Earth Wind & Fire horn section on Duke and Abacab had suggested his obsession with American R&B.

Circumstance indelibly stamped this album, however, as Collins ended up building its emotional core around the apparently devastating dissolution of his first marriage. The tone is set straight off by one of the most passionate, atmospheric expressions of contempt ever recorded, "In The Air Tonight." Alone in a stark, haunting soundscape, Collins suggests the defining moment in his life wasn't falling in love but crashing headlong out of it. If you don't get chills when he sings "if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand," surely you must at that magic moment two-thirds of the way in when he blasts the bottom end of the song into the picture with an earthquake of a drum riff. This is a wounded animal you're dealing with here, feral and dangerous.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Collins then flips around a hundred and eighty degrees and shows us how he came to be in this dark and fearsome place, with the tender, almost angelic romanticism of "This Must Be Love." The higher the heights, the farther the fall, he seems to be saying. The next track, "Behind The Lines," a solo remake of a Genesis tune from the Duke album, sticks out like a sore thumb here, a self-indulgent "this is the way I wanted it done" version that adds his treasured EWF horn section and little else to the original.

But we're quickly back to core issues again; the desperation in his voice through the naturalistic narrative of "The Roof Is Leaking" feels genuine, and is complemented well by the inventive, emotionally searching piano/percussion duet of its companion piece, "Droned." Soon after, the jaunty R&B of "I Missed Again" intrudes, feeling out of place until the lyrics -- a tangle of crossed emotional wires and lost opportunities -- come into focus. After a couple of decent but forgettable mid-tempo numbers, the album winds down with the airy, catastrophic heartbreak of "If Leaving Me Is Easy," before closing with a wild interpretation of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," whose psychedelic swirls suggest a death spiral even as its lyrics ("Love is all and love is everyone") suggest Collins still hangs onto a guarded optimism for the future.

Since the initial triumph of Face Value, Collins' output has been, to put it kindly, spotty. He spent most of the '80s trading the deeply personal truths bared on this album for infectious but unfulfilling dance rhythms and slick commercial balladeerism, draining all passion and empathy out of his performing persona in the process. He's made a great deal of money in the process, to be sure, but the vast majority of work he's ever done that has real emotional impact for an audience is right here on Face Value. His apparent gains in personal and professional happiness have been his audience's losses, which is not a slam so much as it is an observation on the sometimes treacherous relationship between the artist and his/her art. Someone once said "pain is growth;" Phil Collins may have unintentionally expunged both elements from his artistic life with this one very strong album.

Rating: B+

User Rating: B+



© 2006 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Atlantic Records, and is used for informational purposes only.