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Genesis - Genesis CD (album) cover

GENESIS

Genesis

 

Symphonic Prog

2.79 | 1339 ratings

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SeeHatfield
2 stars This is the album that drove me away. How good or bad is it, really?

I'm listening, I mean really listening, to Genesis (the band's eponymous yellow album of 1983) for the first time. Back in the day, it was the album I didn't buy, the first one I let get away from me.

See, I became a Genesis fan because of Duke, then bought and devotedly listened to Abacab and Three Sides Live. I was hooked. But I jumped ship when the yellow Genesis album came out. I've never owned a copy of the yellow album (or its successors) and until now have not listened to it closely.

By the time the yellow album came out late in 1983, I knew a good bit of early Genesis as well as Phil Collins' first two solo albums (the first terrific, the second less so). I had just gone to college and was in the habit of nerding out on serious, often obscure, prog. I certainly was aware of the yellow album, and I bet I thought about buying it, but somehow it didn't seem for me. I mistrusted the band's poppy new direction, and recognized the album's eponymous title as a bid for reinvention. That's when I gave up on new Genesis -- it was as if the band was giving me a convenient jumping-off point. (When subsequent Genesis albums came out, I wasn't even aware of them.)

Of course, I could count on hearing songs from the yellow album on the radio back in 1983, and even now I hear songs from it at, say, the supermarket. So, listening to it now is not quite a new experience. "That's All," "Taking It All Too Hard," and "Just a Job to Do" still get plenty of airplay. In fact, I think I've heard most of the tracks on this album over and over. It's just that I've never bothered to listen to the album as such. It's interesting to go back (via Apple Music) now and listen to an album I rejected by a band I once followed religiously.

So, what do I think of this album that I spurned so long ago? Well, honestly, I don't think I missed very much, but I've tried to give it a fair listen. My take: this is an ingratiating pop album with some bright moments, the work of gifted, self-aware musicians, consummate professionals working at the top of their craft. It turns out that their results of their work are not that interesting. I will say that the yellow album beats out a lot of tired prog from the early eighties (the genre was limping along then IMO), but that's hardly praise.

A good part of the album is musically insipid. Shockingly, long stretches of it are rhythmically unexciting -- an odd thing for Collins. His famous gated drum sound (with the huge reverb) is mostly gone, replaced by Linn drum machines and quiet, fluid drumming, some of it on a Simmons electric kit (the SDS-5). This album offers some of Collins' least surprising, most discreet and self-effacing playing. More than any Genesis or Collins album before it, it seems determined to showcase Phil the singer, not Phil the drummer -- certainly not the inventive prog or fusion drummer. There are grooves aplenty, of course, from the rubbery swing of "That's All" to the hyped-up funk of "Just a Job to Do." Much of the record is danceable, if not exactly infectious, but the drumwork does not startle or delight. For me, that's a big letdown -- not just by Genesis standards, but in comparison to previous Collins numbers like "It Don't Matter to Me" or his version of "Behind the Lines," which are enlivened by terrific drumming.

Sadly, the album's would-be epic, consisting of "Home by the Sea" and the mostly instrumental sequel "Second Home by the Sea," is a damp squib. The long instrumental section is tuneless, lacking the inventiveness of Genesis's earlier instrumental workouts and, most damningly, any variation in the drumming. Against a sparse and unyielding Simmons drum pattern by Collins and some chanking by Rutherford, Banks and Rutherford take turns noodling on top of the groove. At about the minute-and-a-half mark, Banks brings on a fanfaric synth theme, the highlight, which recurs around 3:40; then, just after the four-minute mark, Rutherford starts playing harder, dirtier guitar that (around 4:30) gathers into a short, piercing solo. The background is grungy and discordant, fattened up with what sounds like a pick-scraping noise (maybe reproduced on Banks' digital Emulator?). The groove is dull, until Collins launches into a vocal recap and conclusion. As with the album's opening track, "Mama," Collins seems determined to lay back here and keep the drumming spare, and the track suffers from a lack of dynamism.

"Second Home by the Sea" reminds me a bit of the second half of the earlier song "Abacab" (from about the 3:30 mark), where the singing stops and the band shifts into minimal, airy soloing against a forceful 4/4 rock groove. There too the tuneful or hooky moments are just that: brief moments, like floor-sweepings, scraps. But I like the astringent minimalism of "Abacab"; it's punchy, caustic, and exhilarating, with a big gated sound -- so the scraps, as they weave in and out, are gripping and easy to remember. Plus, "Abacab" has great drumming, full of chokes and accents and little touches despite the driving 4/4. Not so here, where the groove just grinds along serviceably. I'd say that "Second Home by the Sea," unfortunately, foreshadows the tunelessness of later Genesis epics like "Driving the Last Spike": unhummable slow epics that are damned hard to remember (I have to admit, I think the later Genesis is actually better at concise, four-minute pop songs than epics).

Now, there is some good songwriting on this album, and even wimpy tracks like "That's All" are full of surprising chords. Dig the bridge on that song, a good example of what Tony Banks has called "tak[ing] the chords places where they weren't supposed to go." Speaking of which, I quite like "Taking It All Too Hard," because the song's chord shape (again, from Banks?) appeals to me. Few pop songs are as quirky while seeming so emotionally straightforward.

The other songs are a mixed bag. "Mama," the moody opener, is a slow-burn study in obsession: a creepy persona song comparable to Collins' "Through These Walls" or Peter Gabriel's "Intruder," all tense and theatrical. Musically, it's a matter of dark atmospherics floating over a ticking rhythm track, punctuated by Collins' notorious mad laugh. I suppose I should be grateful that the song doesn't explode into a gated drum fill at the three-minute mark, along the lines of "In the Air Tonight." On the other hand, I kind of wish there were more musical explosions in the song. While the music builds, and Collins' vocal certainly does, the track doesn't so much bust out as slowly boil over (eventually, yes, there are booming, gated drums, against the familiar sound of Collins screaming into a wash of echo). Basically, "Mama" signals the groove-oriented nature of the whole album -- it's a fair warning that there won't be any tricky shifts in meter or sudden dynamic lunges, just a lot of simmering. Me, I prefer the tricky stuff.

"Illegal Alien," oi, is a persona song gone wrong: a misguided exercise in racial ventriloquism. This one, which belongs in the "what were they thinking?" category, is one of the few Genesis numbers I'd erase from memory (though naturally, it's catchy). "Just a Job to Do," with its frantic chanking and bubbling bass, is better, one of the album's few rhythmically thrilling tracks. I don't dig the lyrics (it's a bit "Danger Money," isn't it?) but it cooks musically. Subliminally, it channels "Get Ready" by the Temptations (where Eddie Kendricks sings, "fee-fi-fo-fum," Collins sings "bang, bang, bang" -- yes?). And is there not an echo of Spirit's "I Got a Line on You" as well? I'm always hearing other people's music through Phil Collins -- he's a sort of nonstop human jukebox.

In sum, musically, Genesis is a jumble, and not in an exciting way. One thing is clear: it's not a Phil Collins solo album in disguise. Sure, Collins' solo stardom triggered the band's turn toward pop. But the sound of Genesis is the sound of three skilled players who had worked out a unique way of workshopping songs among themselves, based on jamming together but also building up tracks piecemeal by overdubbing on the resulting grooves. Take for example the inescapable earworm "That's All": reportedly, that one came about when Banks sampled a guitar lick by Rutherford, then slowed down and tweaked it, after which Collins laid down in a Ringo-esque shuffle on the drums, taking things in an unexpected direction. Banks, Collins, and Rutherford got used to working this way, to the point that, I gather, they would rule out bringing any prewritten solo material into their Genesis sessions. Sometimes the results were remarkable ("Taking It All Too Hard" is quite a song to have discovered through such an odd process), and then again sometimes the results were flat. But the popification of Genesis was willed by all three members. I gather they enjoyed workshopping together, fiddling around in their studio/lab.

In the end, I do think I made the right choice when I passed on this album almost forty years ago. Mind you, it's not a terrible pop album, and I try not to fall into the cliched role of the aggrieved prog fan who mourns the moment when their favorite band "sold out" -- could there be anything more cliched? The righteous fury of the ex- fan who imagines that things were somehow pure before the big sellout; the sense of betrayal because a beloved cult act decided that they wanted bigger crowds to dance and hum along to and enjoy their music -- those are such well-worn complaints. But I have to admit that, for me, Genesis becomes less interesting musically from this point forward. There just isn't as much to engage me. The craft is there, but the horizons are small, the music more ordinary. I sense, from interviews, that Banks, Collins, and Rutherford, all of them, were tired of playing esoteric music and wanted to reach the mainstream, and I detect a sense of pride in their craftsmanship when they finally did reach that multi-platinum audience. My guess is that they took sales as affirmation of their ability to connect with more people. In any case, all three members were bound and determined to produce more streamlined and accessible pop, both on their own and with Genesis. They did it smartly. Of course they did; they were gifted writers and players. To me, though, Genesis seemed to succumb to formula, and the Banks/Collins/Rutherford workshop approach became a bit chummy and self-satisfied. That's why I bailed.

SeeHatfield | 2/5 |

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