Face Value is Phil Collins’ debut solo album. It was released in February 1981 and topped the UK Album Chart upon release. The album has been certified five times Platinum in the United States.
When I was younger, I used to hate on things.
If you’ve read any of my other posts on this blog, you probably just snort-laughed and said “Yeah, no shit. You hate on things now that you’re old, too”. This may be true, but I would argue that at this point I’m hating on things generally only when they deserve it, and I do so with style and creativity. When I was younger, I would hate on things indiscriminately, and I would do so in the artless manner that only a young man can.
Around the time that I was 19 or 20, there were two targets of my ire above all others. One was the actor Ethan Hawke. Boy, I hated Ethan Hawke. The other was Phil Collins, who I believed to be the worst musical artist of all time.
While I would eventually turn the corner on hating Ethan Hawke, thanks mostly to his output in the last decade consisting primarily of really hilarious & wonderful genre films, I have never warmed up to the work of Phil Collins. My hatred has cooled to indifference, but I can’t really say that I’ve ever felt compelled to get to know his work. When I think about a Phil Collins song, I just think of that ultra-processed 1980s studio sound, and his voice (which I find incredibly unappealing).
Perhaps I’m wrong. There may be gold in his catalogue that I haven’t had the opportunity to appreciate. I’m going to be frank, though: for the purposes of this series of posts, Phil Collins is starting out at a much greater deficit than Pearl Jam was when I started reevaluating their work.
Phil has his work cut out for him. As do I. Because I have to listen to all of it. First up – Face Value.
In The Air Tonight
Phil’s big hit leads off this album, which is fine as we can just get it out the way immediately. The album, strangely, starts off with the same kind of atmospheric dinking around that Pearl Jam would use to kick off their first album ten years later. I wonder if they were deliberately referencing this song? Probably not. But I’m going to argue that they were.
For a giant hit, this song is pretty boring. The pace is sluggish and the melody repetitive. The number of different, incredibly thick effects that have been applied to every element of the song are very distracting. It’s as if someone had just found out that digital delay effects had been invented and they decided that it might make Collins’ voice more palatable.
Speaking of his voice, his performance on this song is fine. The harmony work is competent. During the fade-out outro, Collins does a bit of vocal vamping that demonstrates how limited his vocal abilities are, but it doesn’t really come into play until the song is basically over, so I’m not going to be too harsh about it.
People make a really big deal about the legendary drum fill in this song, and while it is admittedly one of the most interesting parts of this song, that bar is really low. I think that it sounds more impressive in context because so little else happens. Let’s get real: If John Bonham had’ve tried to get away with that kind of drum fill a decade prior on a Led Zepplin song, the rest of that band would have given him shit for being so lazy.
At the end of the day, I’m not 100% certain of why this song was such a giant hit. It is incredibly long and almost nothing happens.
This Must Be Love
I wonder who had the bright idea to follow up the lugubrious first track with a second track based around a stock drum loop on a Casio keyboard played at the lowest possible tempo. Whoever it was must have had a real need-for-speed deathwish, because this is a ripper in the same way that eating plain Bran Flakes is a taste bonanza.
From a song-writing perspective, this song is actually more interesting than “In The Air Tonight”. It features a proper chorus and at the very least some interesting jazzy bass guitar playing. Again, though, they end the song with a fade-out. I’m sure that this was an expectation at the time, but fade-outs always just make it sound like they were too clueless to come up with a decisive ending.
Behind The Lines
Finally, some fucking life has been injected into this album. This is peak-80s light funk-pop that would make Paul Simon’s cheesiest work blush. That being said, some of the guitar lines are pretty fun and it’s bouncy without being completely cutesy.
I’m still finding the vocal production puzzling. The delay applied to the vocals make it difficult to make out any of the lyrics and on this number – which is a little punchier than the last two – the vocal lines get a little lost.
This song also fades out. That’s 3/3 for fade-outs. This one fades out into cricket sounds, though, which I think is pretty funny and kind of accurate to my feelings about this album so far.
The Roof Is Leaking
One track at a higher energy was apparently too much, and “The Roof Is Leaking” brings things back down. That being said, this track is a ballad that features a much more straightforward production style and a decent piano & slide acoustic guitar arrangement. The song is okay and even his vocals – as limited as his ability is – are presented in a more intimate style that works a little better than the tin-can vocals that have been on display so far.
I like this song more than the others. No fade out, either. Fade-out count: 3/4
It turns out that we are in the “crickets section” of this album, because the cricket sound effects are still rolling behind this track. “Droned” is an instrumental song based around a syncopated piano line and some “tribal” rhythm work. This is years before Paul Simon’s Graceland, but I would place this in the same 80s melange as that record. You know, white people appropriating the traditional musics of other places and making bajillions of dollars while also trying to portray some kind of vague liberal awareness.
I’m not sure this is a song. The piano line is pretty neat. Fade-out count: 4/5.
Hand In Hand
In keeping with the white pop singer re-purposing traditional sounds and rhythms vibe of the previous track, “Hand In Hand” is drowning in what sounds like mbira for its first minute or so. This is another instrumental track, albeit a much more lively one than “Droned”. I would argue that the drum work demonstrated on this track is much more interesting and impressive than that one drum fill on “In The Air Tonight”, but ultimately this song just sounds like cheesy footage that would roll over the end credits of some 80s TV show about a white person going to a poor African country and saving their lives somehow.
Fade-out count: 5/6
I Missed Again
It appears that this is Phil’s stab at white-guy soul. The bass & drums save this track from being absolutely tuneless. The horn stabs are fine, but a little bit ubiquitous. The saxophone solo (this is a 1980s record, after all) is worth it for watching Phil Collin mime playing the saxophone in this ridiculous video. Actually, by virtue of this totally bonkers video, I’m going to rate this song a success. Look at him go!
Fade-out count: 6/7
You Know What I Mean
I quite like the piano work on this track, and this is another song where they’ve left the vocal track relatively unvarnished. This could easily be a minor Billy Joel song. It’s high-drama, sure, but well written and the arrangement is nicely put together.
Also, no fade-out! Fade-out count: 6/8.
Thunder And Lightning
I’ve gotta say, for a guy whose career has been predicated on writing hooky hits, there aren’t very many strong hooks on this record. I could find things to remember on a sonic level about this song (and others), but on a purely melodic level, this is some forgettable shit. The chorus is remarkably bland, but this song doesn’t sound worse than the others on this record. It’s… fine?
Fade-out count: 7/9
I’m Not Moving
This could be the same song as the previous song, but with a bopping vocoder gag in the chorus instead of horn hits. Beyond that it’s the same kind of light funk-pop that has defined all but the ballads on this record. The bass and drums sound good. But now it’s just sounding like they wrote 6 or 7 songs using a certain template and then Phil just hurriedly wrote lyrics and recorded vocals over them. The fade-out in this one sounds particularly like this song is just unfinished.
Yes, there’s a fade-out. Fade-out count: 8/10
If Leaving Me Is Easy
The vocal performance on “If Leaving Me Is Easy” are such a blatant attempt at sounding “intimate”, it’s cringe-inducing. It’s a middlingly successful piano ballad, not too far off the mark from the other piano ballads on the album. The back half is defined by a high falsetto background vocal that makes it sound like Phil heard the Bee Gees and thought “Oh, that’s how you turn a song from okay to total sex party“. It’s sexy in the way that watching cream cheese spread onto a bagel is sexy.
Fadeout count: 9/11 (never forget)
Tomorrow Never Knows
Phil Collins decided to do a Beatles cover. I’m not sure why he decided to do one of their most LSD-laced songs in an era that was defined by absolutely rampant cocaine use. I’m sure that he doesn’t remember why.
I’ve always liked this Beatles song and this cover isn’t going to ruin that for me. This is super unnecessary, though. Also: This isn’t even the best cover of this song I’ve heard, but it was good enough for Phil Collins to end his fucking debut record with it. You might as well end it with a spoken-word essay about why you think that other people’s songwriting is more deserving of a record contract than your own songs.
This song kind of ends with a fade-out, but it’s a fade-out into Phil Collins singing a line from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” a Cappella, which I think was meant to have some deep significance, but which causes me to think “fuck you, Phil Collins, this is worse than a fade-out”.
Fade-out count: 10/12
I’ve made a real mistake wading into this pool, because there was no way that I was going to like it. I guess I was kind of expecting that maybe there was a level of quality and value here that I had missed as a younger man, but it’s largely as bad as I had always thought.
The elements of the production style that I don’t care for and even his voice could be forgiven if there were just more good songwriting on display here. Instead, with the exception of a few tracks that land on the pleasant side of things, we’re given a collection of songs that often feel like the discard pile from a much better singer-songwriter from this era. Alongside those, we have some kind of superfluous instrumentals that seem like a transparent stab at crafting a pretentiously “important” record, and the very best that the pop side of this album has to offer sounds like a white guy aping the poppiest work of Stevie Wonder (and failing).
Add to this the increasingly baffling use of Fade-Out Technology – 10 tracks out of a total of 12 – and I’m not really sure of what else to say about Face Value other than the fact that I think it sucks.
I can’t wait to tackle his second outing, 1982’s Hello, I Must Be Going! in a few weeks.