Reevaluating PHIL COLLINS – Part 3: No Jacket Required

Phil Collins’ third record was released on February 18, 1985. All four singles were Top 10 hits on the Billboard 100 chart. Certified Diamond in the United States, No Jacket Required is Collins’ all-time best selling album.

Following the shocking turn of events in the last installment of Reevaluating Phil Collins, I’m not sure how I feel going into this one. Given how much I hated Face Value, I was expecting to dig in for a second helping of slag when listening to Hello, I Must Be Going!, Phil’s sophomore effort. Instead, I found myself having a reasonably good time and was, more importantly, compelled by the Phil Collins Lore that seemed to inform the album.

It was a baffling portrait of a high-spirited man being shackled and trampled by a disintegrating marriage. While I may not have adored all of the music on display, I found the whole thing to be ruthlessly fascinating, and could not quite treat it to the critical carpet bombing that I had been expecting to dole out throughout every entry of this series.

Now, tackling No Jacket Required, Collins’ most successful album, I find myself at a crossroads. Will I be able to revert back to simply thinking that Phil Collins is a hacky mainstream 80s boob more worthy of knee-jerk disdain than a fair shake? Or will I continue to be drawn down the melancholy path of this man’s life, tolerating his reverb-laden snare drum along the way?

There’s really only one way to find out.

Sussudio
I know this song. You know this song. Basically everybody knows this song.

Phil does a little “acting” at the top of this video. It is bad. What follows is the 80s-est 80s sound palate I could imagine. It churns and farts along as well as the best pop hits of the era. I want to hate this song, but it has a fine set of hooks once you push beyond the dated production and ultimate pointlessness of its content.

Speaking of the content, when we last left Sir Phil he was meditating heavily on whether or not he cared about saving his failing marriage from distance, alienation and infidelity. “Sussudio” provides the exposition necessary to conclude that in the intervening years, Phil got a divorce and now he’s out prowling for tail. Phil has it bad for a woman apparently named Sussudio, which either means that he’s making it all up and he’s just really lonely, or he’s traveling in some strange circles and this album is going to be a wild fuck-party.

This could be very interesting either way.

Only You And I Know
Well, now everybody knows, Phil. You put it right here on your album.

Holy shit, the drums on this album are oppressive, as are the grumbling bass synths. These songs sound very densely packed and busy. With each successive album, Collins’ sound grows more confident, and one could claim that this track has a “driving” feel to it. The keyboard stabs and shredding guitar solos lend the song a reasonably fun splash of Eau Du Van Halen.

Sadly, this song is all sound and no substance, as I’ve found no reasonable melody to hang onto and now that it’s over I already forget

Long Long Way to Go
I’ll bet there was a day in the early 1980s when this album was being written where Phil Collins said, out loud, the words “I’d like to give this one an Oriental feel”. You could say things like that back then, because back then people knew less about things like being smart and culturally sensitive. He would have gotten ripped on Twitter for it, though.

This song rocks like a really sleepy koi pond on a cloudy day. It is more mood than melody, and seems to be able Phil being annoyed by the fact that he sees bad news on television all the time. It is notable, however, for its very abrupt and bold ending. For this to appear on a record written by Philly Fade-out is a pretty big deal.

I Don’t Wanna Know
Whatever it was that only Phil and one person knew two songs ago, he doesn’t wanna know it now. FYI.

This song features a guitar chug that works wonders in the head-bobbin’ department and the peak-80s transitional riffs are straight up Journey-esque gems. The chorus is constructed well enough, and this track sounds very of-the-time, but in a favourable way.

Most interesting to me, is that this song appears to be about Phil’s ex-wife, who has been talking to people about how sad she is that she blew up her life with Phil (presumably because things went south with her paramour). Phil is like “Hey! Guys! I don’t wanna know about it!” but secretly you can tell that he totally wants to know about it, and is actually loving the attention. I mean, you wrote a whole song about it Phil.

I find Phil Collins’ music more interesting when it is connected to the central narrative through-lines of what may prove to be his masterpiece, Hello, I Must Be Going!

One More Night
Phil’s doing more acting this album, and I could get into that if they cast someone really great as his wife. Here, he’s playing a businessman who got drunk enough at a bar that he decided to pay them extra to let him stay after they close so that he could play with their piano and somehow make it sound like an electronic keyboard.

I know this song. You know this song. Basically everybody knows this song.

The verses are kind of a drag, but the chorus has that gauzy 80s “sexiness” that is kind of always amusing to hear. Also a pretty clutch sax solo, so this makes sense as a single of the time.

More importantly, this song updates us on the Sussudio situation, from what I understand. It would appear that Sussudio and Phil Collins had a one night stand and now she doesn’t want to see him again, and Phil is like “c’mon baby just lemme do that one more time”. It’s funny and creepy and a little sad, but it works into the Phil The Fuckmonster album pretty well because you can’t win ’em all, Phil.

Don’t Lose My Number
A very 80s-appropriate number with a “Love Is A Battlefield” stomp to it and a solid chorus hook. It sounds very familiar to me. While it isn’t mind-blowing, there’s enough going on to maintain interest and I was surprised to hear the very nifty dead-stops in the bridge.

The track appears to be a story-song from the perspective of some woman, but I choose to actually just take the song’s title and use it to apply it to my ever-expanding Collinsverse mythology. I think that this song is actually about Phil getting nowhere in nailing down a second date with Sussudio, so he gets very drunk at his next concert and follows some poor woman around with a matchbook that has his number written inside of it and he won’t let her leave until she takes it.

Aw. Poor Phil!

Who Said I Would?
This song is actually just “Sussudio” but not nearly as catchy. Truly inessential. Inessential as a song, anyway. It is, however, completely essential to the story line.

This song is about Phil Collins stalking the girl from the last song and asking her why she won’t commit to him and she’s all “Guy, I didn’t even for a moment say that I wanted to go out with you. Who said I would?!”

To be honest with you, I feel like most of this behaviour out of Phil stems from the fact that he’s never really confronted his feelings about his divorce. He’s acting out. It is unfortunate, but the truly unfortunate thing is the collateral toll that it is taking on innocent strangers.

This song ends with a robot voice that is very, very amusing. Saves the song.

Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore
Although this song is kind of a stinker generic Phil Collins album track, I believe that we may be witnessing Phil make a little bit of progress in wrestling with the demons that linger within him. He may be focused on Sussudio as he sings this (I’m speculating), but he’s really singing to himself.

Phil is confronting himself regarding his wild post-divorce mid-80s frivolous fuck bonanza lifestyle which (while seemingly fairly unsuccessful) is a cynical response to his own feelings of rejection. When Phil sings “doesn’t anybody stay together anymore?”, he’s really singing “why aren’t any of you women my ex-wife who I wish had never left me and now I am always sad?”

This song isn’t very good.

Inside Out
I can also sing “Sussudio” to this song. Phil has had some good ideas on this record, but he really, really liked one of them.

Who even cares about the music at this point, though?

Phil is really grappling with himself here. He opens up and admits that he needs to put in the work in order to truly heal. He croons:

Now everybody keeps on telling me how to be
And everybody tells me do what they say
Oh I’ll help myself it’s up to me and no-one else
But till I’m ready just keep out of my way

We can see from this that Phil has some friends, which I have been a little worried about, and they’re, at the very least, offering him advice. He is right to insist that any work that needs to be done is his to do, but I’m not encouraged by how aggressively he seems to be pushing them away. Support in times of trouble is absolutely invaluable.

This is tricky territory and there are moments where he seems to be stumbling, but this track seems to point in the overall direction that Phil will try to rise to the occasion and become a whole person again. I’m glad!

Take Me Home
Phil ends “No Jacket Required” with an anthemic synth number and a video of him traveling the world all by himself.

Given that he’s singing about the fact that he’s singing about the fact that he’s been a prisoner all of his life, I can’t decide whether or not this song is a celebratory expression of newfound freedom from depression and self-imposed restrictions. The imagery of Phil singing to no one in front of a variety of landmarks is certainly stark and doesn’t inspire confidence that he’s doing any better.

Also, the end of the video in which Phil says “Honey, I’m home” to an off-screen partner (presumably) of some fashion, who then accuses him of having just been out getting drunk instead of traveling the world fills me with concern that this has been about alcohol all along.

Perhaps Phil is an abusive alcoholic, a notion that puts our current conception of his ex-wife as an adulterous villain into question. To be perfectly honest, I have had concerns about Phil’s grip on things as far back as that weird fishmonger song from the last record. Not to mention the song where he just listens to people having sex through the walls.

There are a lot of upbeat and uplifting sounding songs on this album, and “Take Me Home” is no exception. It is uplifting sounding. This sound, when held in contrast to the roiling darkness that seems to be at the heart of every Phil Collins song is… kind of brilliant, really. This is disturbing stuff.

The Verdict

tenor
Sonically, No Jacket Required is a continued refinement of Phil Collins’ pop sound, which grows more potent and confident with each outing. The addition of some of the pop tropes of the time that hadn’t been present before – notably a heavier reliance on harder-edged guitar work on some numbers – further expand the sound and somehow manage to make the album sound simultaneously dated and timeless.

The best tracks on No Jacket Required are the most polished tracks that Collins had released at the time, and remain among his best. The album does contain a substantial amount of filler material, but let’s not kid ourselves – artists like Phil Collins are why Greatest Hits albums were created.

The album does not have as strong of a narrative thread as Hello, I Must Be Going!, and it suffers for it. I found myself having to stitch together the details of the story with very little information, and this lack of cohesion (while perhaps intentional) made for a less compelling tale. That being said, I’m more concerned than ever about Phil Collins’ mental well being.

I had wondered if this album would be a post-divorce “swingers” album, and it did deliver to some degree on that front. I have to wonder, however, if perhaps every woman on this album except for Phil’s ex-wife exists only as a mentally fabricated coping mechanism from the darkest corners of a broken alcoholic’s imagination.

Where else are you going to find a woman named Sussudio?

Reevaluating PHIL COLLINS – Part 2: Hello, I Must Be Going!

Phil Collins’ second album, Hello, I Must Be Going!, was released in late 1982. This album would bring Collins both his first Brit Awards nomination and his first Grammy Awards nomination. As of this writing, the album has been certified three times Platinum in the United States.

When I think about great years, the first one that comes to mind is 1982. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released in 1982, guys. Also, I was born, which we’re all super grateful for. At some point during 1982, Phil Collins’ second album was released, which is, you know… a thing that happened, I guess.

According to my Wikipedia research, Phil’s marriage was on the rocks while he was writing his sophomore effort, and I am hoping that this painful time in his life will translate into material with a darker edge. According to Wikipedia, his relationship troubles inspired the songs, “I Don’t Care Anymore” and “Do You Know, Do You Care”, which seems like a pretty horrible double standard. I think that I may have just gotten to the bottom of why your marriage failed, Phil.

If only I had a time machine. But I don’t. So let’s dig into this hot slab of vinyl!

I Don’t Care Anymore
Holy shit, Phil’s marriage sounds pretty rough. I can’t imagine that the relationship survived this song getting released, the way that he’s going off on his partner. But, from what I gather, by that point he didn’t care anymore. Like, he’s pretty clear on that.

While the repeated “I don’t CAY-HA no mo'” refrain is cheesy and cartoonishly sassy, I’m kind of … I’m kind of into angry Phil Collins. He’s really givin’ it on the back half of this track, and it really works on top of the anthemic synth chords and interestingly syncopated drum figure. Even the bridge is strong, bringing in a chord progression and vocal melody that I wasn’t expecting.

What is happening???

I Cannot Believe It’s True
Well, believe it, Phil.

This track traffics in the same kind of hold-over late 70s white guy soul-pop that suffocated his debut, but the production is a little better and this track is a little more hooky and tuneful than most of the songs on the debut. Phil’s voice doesn’t sound like it’s trapped in a magic lamp, and all of the instruments are clear and clean.

I’m going to be honest, I hate music in this vibe. But this seems as good of an example of it as any. It pains me to say it, but there are some clever songwriting turns at work here and it isn’t absolutely terrible.

Like China
Hahaha. He’s singing in a cockney accent!

What the fuck is happening??? I’m actually enjoying this. Am I just in a way better mood today than I was when I reviewed Face Value? Do I need to reevaluate my own reevaluation?

“Like China” is more entertaining because it’s goofy and ridiculous than it is because it’s actually good. It is very silly and kind of catchy in an immensely stupid way. Still, enjoyment is enjoyment, and this is kind of fun. There is a sick guitar solo in this song. Haha. Am I a Phil Collins fan now?

Do You Know, Do You Care?
The “I’m mad at my wife” Phil Collins has a very different feel from sunny, poppy, sing-like-a-cockney-fishmonger Phil Collins. This is another very moody track. This song is not that different from “I Don’t Care Anymore”, but the drum treatment is slightly more lugubrious and the soaring synth chords have been replaced by a growling bass drone.

I actually think that the drum and synth work on this track is fairly interesting and well done, but the vocal work is a redundant and less tuneful rehashing of this album’s first track. Not the most terrible track, nor is it particularly great.

You Can’t Hurry Love
This is a cover of The Supremes’ and it is great. This song was written by absolutely untouchable geniuses of songwriting. Phil’s version doesn’t touch The Supremes’ original recording, but you would have to work pretty hard to fuck this one up. It is a perfect song.

It Don’t Matter To Me
Jesus Christ, Phil. I’m starting to find your ambivalence unattractive.

The horns on this song are going absolutely apeshit. The other thing that I find apeshit about this song is the message. Phil sings “there’s nowhere that you can run to ’cause I’m going to find you / there’s no place that you can stay ’cause I’ll be behind you / just to remind you / that it don’t matter to me”.

Phil, you’re talking about stalking your wife to remind her that you’re over it. It sounds like it matters to you a lot, Phil.

This song isn’t very good, but it’s still better than most of the songs on Face Value.

Thru These Walls
Commencing with a similar percussion and synth feel to “In The Air Tonight” and includes a bunch of drum rolls that sound like they’re also from that song. Which is fine and everything, but the lead story here is that this song appears to be about Phil sitting around in hotel rooms listening to people fuck in adjacent rooms!

The lyrics on this album are bonkers! It is fun and hilarious to listen to!

Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away
Oh, okay. Now we’re getting to the meat of the issue. Phil and his wife were having problems because Phil was always away on tour and some dude made a move when his wife felt vulnerable and disillusioned. At least that’s the way that Phil tells it.

Phil, look… how do you know that they don’t maybe genuinely love each other? You don’t, Phil. You can’t force her to choose you. I understand how hard this is, but it’s her choice!

I don’t even care about the music anymore. I need to know how this ends.

The West Side
just said that I didn’t care about the music anymore and Phil decides to throw an instrumental track at me. Nicely played, you prick.

“The West Side” is a modern “jazz-pop” instrumental, and while there is some good musicianship to be found here (drums included), I’m completely uninterested in what this does and where this goes.

Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til The Morning
Hello, I Must Be Going! closes with a yearning piano ballad in which Phil pleads with his wife that they stop arguing so that they can just pretend nothing is wrong and spend the night together. I’m not exactly sure of when this happened, but I’m suddenly very invested in Phil Collins’ marriage and this song made me very sad.

The vocal performance is a little shmaltzy, but the string arrangement is very nice.

Poor Phil and Phil’s wife.

The Verdict

philkiss
I was rough on Face Value, but I honestly feel like that album deserved it. Hello, I Must Be Going! is a remarkable improvement both sonically and in composition. And frankly, it’s just more entertaining. This album is a portrait of a man completely cracking up due to personal stresses, and it is exactly as hilarious and sad as one would expect that to be.

The album still boasts this era’s preoccupation with fade-out song endings, but is less of an offender than its predecessor, with a FADE-OUT COUNT of 6/10.

The inclusion of “Can’t Hurry Love” is a bit of a cheat, because that song is so greatly beyond the reach of most songwriters that it couldn’t help but bump up this album’s appeal. That being said, I found Hello, I Must Be Going! to be a not-totally-terrible album that serves up an occasionally very funny and sometimes almost moving journey through what I’m sure was a difficult period in the life of Phil Collins.

I am almost looking foward to the next album, No Jacket Required, which I am expecting to be his “just divorced, back-in-the-saddle, weird bachelor pick-up tunes” album.

Thanks for reading!

Reevaluating PHIL COLLINS – Part 1: Face Value

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

Droned
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

The Verdict


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.

Ready Player One

There are times when you can be told by a bunch of people that you’d like something, you can read a summary of the thing and be pretty sure that you’re going to love the thing, and then you still wind up really not liking the thing. This is often a matter of taste or sensibility, with the piece of art or culture in question just missing the mark in terms of being what you were hoping that it would be. It can also happen because some things just aren’t actually very good.

This is what I believe to be the case with Ready Player One, a novel that seems to desperately throw nostalgic references at the reader in an attempt to distract from the hackneyed plot and lousy writing.

RPO-Harlam-Elam-12112015.jpg
This fan-made poster manages to be both inspired by Ready Player One and also fun. Not sure how.

It is clear that Ready Player One’s author, Ernest Cline, is a passionate guy. This novel, his first, is a densely constructed love-letter to all things nerdy – specifically a certain era of nerdy. From just the opening chapter, the references to the computer games, music and films of the 1980s are laid on thick and laid on frequently. Given my vintage, this was initially charming. As it slowly dawned on me that these references weren’t simply place-setting or a quirk of the novel’s world, but were the actual meat of the work itself, I became increasingly irritated by their frequency. It doesn’t stop. This book may as well have been called “Hey, remember this?”, and it may as well have just been a trivia book for dorks of a certain age. That would have spared us having to suffer through the storyline.

The book revolves around an underprivileged kid – also a nerd – living in a dystopian future that is so economically and socially bleak that people choose to spend the majority of their time living in a virtual reality world called the Oasis. People go to school in the Oasis. They socialize there. They find their purpose there.

The Oasis was created by a software designer who’s portrayed as equal parts Steve Jobs and Willy Wonka – a creative genius who lived and died obsessed with his own work and his own difference to other humans. His obsession with the pop-culture of his youth – the 1980s – bleeds heavily into the VR universe that he’s created, and as such, becomes the obsession of the droves of people who essentially live within this universe. The action of the novel kicks off when Wonka-Jobs kicks the bucket. His death triggers the commencement of a secret contest to uncover secrets hidden deep within the Oasis, carrying the grand prize of the inheritance of his unfathomable wealth. As the worst nerds in existence are also existing in abject poverty, of course this leads to heated and ridiculous competition for the rest of the novel.

This leads us to yet another series of adventures and trials that can only appropriately be attempted and bested by the white guy heroReady Player One reads like it’s a required text in White Guy Power Fantasy 101, a course that you can sign up to take at Caucasian With A Penis University, which is a school that doesn’t exist – except for the fact that it’s the only school that exists.

The novel’s protagonist, Wade, is a white kid who’s got a real tough life. He’s chubby and lives with his aunt, because obviously he’s an orphan. Aw. But when the contest gets announced, he begins to flourish. Contest has a video game challenge? Who’s better at video games than a white guy?! Nobody! Contest has movie trivia challenge? White guys know all kinds of things! The main competition is an evil corporation and a spunky white chick? White guy will totally show that mean old corporation who’s boss and then beat the white chick at the contest (because girls, am I right?) and in the process will win her heart (because girls, am I right?).

Ernest Cline may be culpable for any damage done to my eyes as they rolled wildly in my head through the course of reading this novel.

The whole thing just reads like slightly above-average fan fiction for white dudes, with the only thing adding verve to the proceedings being the frequent and passionate shout-outs to John Hughes films, new wave bands and Atari 2600 games. It could be argued that the novel is intended for the Young Adult set, and should more appropriately be considered alongside things like The Hunger Games or even Harry Potter. I don’t buy it. If this novel were intended for younger audiences, its heavy reliance on references unintelligible to anyone under the age of 30 makes no sense.

The book is a success, probably because it’s written by a white dude and is about a white dude, and because nerds will buy anything. Look at me – I bought it. There’s a movie adaption coming, by way of Steven Spielberg. I’m sure that he’ll address the weak issues that exist with the book, as he’s certainly never been guilty of creating any white dude power fantasies!

The bottom line: Writing about the video game Joust doesn’t in and of itself make for a fun read, Cline. Even if Joust is awesome, which it is.

Continue reading for a SPOILER that points to the book’s most infuriating moment, if you’re not planning on reading it. If you are planning on reading it: Why?

 

 

Somewhere near the end of the book, it is revealed that Wade’s best friend, with whom he’d been in heated competition with for the grand prize and who he had assumed he was in competition with for the heart of the cute, spunky white girl, is revealed to secretly be a girl posing as a guy. This reveal takes her out of the running for white girl’s heart. Further, though, it doesn’t complicate Wade’s wooing of the white girl because it’s revealed that this friend is also a lesbian and also overweight. Phew! Close call! Almost had two girls to choose from, but it turns out that this one is a fat lesbian, so she can still just be Wade’s buddy!

Oh, and also she’s black. She’s the only black character in the novel, that I can recall. It’s as if Cline got to the end of the novel and realized that it was all white people and then arbitrarily made this character black because she’d already been essentially invalidated in two other ways already.

Holy shit, just writing about this is making me angry. Fuck this book.

 

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