Regardless of how much criticism Phil Collins has received over the years for his solo career and for "what he did to Genesis", serious music listeners know better, and Phil's timeless, remarkably eclectic solo debut "Face Value", which came out in early 1981, is a masterpiece. It's an album that makes good on the theory that an artist does their best work in times of personal turmoil. Phil simply began 'fooling around' as a means to comfort himself in the wake of a painful divorce. Apart from a cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows", a retooling of the Genesis song "Behind the Lines", and a brief uncredited acapella snippet of "Over The Rainbow" at the very end of the record, Phil wrote everything here himself, and not only is his songwriting consistently terrific, Phil is really all over the map stylistically, and yet, somehow it all holds together beautifully. That said, this ain't some run-of-the-mill soft rock or adult contemporary album.
Even with all of the brilliant songs Phil has written over the course of his career, the first track here, "In the Air Tonight", remains a signature song that's perhaps his most enduringly popular, and for good reason. Although the idea of suddenly switching from a very quiet part to an ear-blastingly loud part was not a new one, the song is staggeringly powerful and was a very innovative production, containing ominous drum machine, creepy synth, atmospheric Fender Rhodes, vocoder, violins, smoky electric guitar (played by long-time Collins and Genesis cohort Daryl Steurmer), heavily echoing vocals, and of course, those ferocious, booming gated drums. Add to that the haunting lyrics and melody (I won't even get into that whole urban legend about the lyrics), and Phil`s passionate, tormented wailing on the fade, and you get one of the most cathartic songs ever recorded. Year after year goes by, and "In The Air Tonight" continues to just sound so damn cool everytime it comes on. It's a rare song in that I absolutely never get sick of it.
But the genius doesn't stop there. Side 1 of the album (i.e. the first six tracks in its vinyl release) is often very quiet, such as on the starkly affecting "The Roof Is Leaking" which seems to be about the hardships of a family living in the US in the mid 1800s, and has Phil's vocals backed by just piano, banjo, & slide guitar. The wistful "This Must Be Love" is a wonderful, mellow love song with excellent backing vocals from Stephen Bishop, whom Phil was a great admirer of--he even slips the phrase "never letting go" into the song, the title of a Bishop song. He gives a finger-snapping horn-laden treatment to "Behind the Lines", the Genesis version (also excellent) of which had appeared the previous year on "Duke". "The Roof Is Leaking" segues into the dramatic, fast paced wordless piece "Droned" which gives way to another instrumental-plus-wordless-chanting track with the feel good "Hand In Hand" (which features a children's chorus). Some pretty adventurous stuff indeed, and not exactly busting with "radio fodder" either--it's easy to see why Phil was surprised at the album's huge commercial success. It seems that "In the Air Tonight" simply captivated the public, and carried the rather uncommercial album.
The first song on `side 2' didn't hurt either though. "I Missed Again" was also a hit, and it's a hook-heavy song that brilliantly 'updates' the sound of '60s Motown for the '80s, with bright-sounding horns and uncanny, sophisticated chord changes. Again, this tune just absolutely never gets old for me. I'm hard-pressed to keep from singing along everytime I happen to hear it come on the radio.
"You Know What I Mean" is a gorgeously melodic and tender ballad which segues into the defiant, catchy kiss-off song "Thunder and Lightning". The following track, the musically and lyrically contemplative "I'm Not Moving", is another big personal favorite of mine, a little marvel of a song, clocking in at well under 3 minutes (although Phil himself seems to think little of this song these days, as it doesn't even get a mention in the DVD that chronicles the making of the album, which I mention later). The extremely sad, but hopeful love song "If Leaving Me Is Easy" is terrifically soothing --it has atmospheric strings, Fender Rhodes, and high falsetto vocals from Collins--rarely would you hear Collins' voice get this high on record ever again after this album.
He then gets psychedelic for "Tomorrow Never Knows", which he does in a slower rendition than the Beatles version. Phil has explained he wanted to perform this song in a more melodic manner than the Beatles original, and it also has ominous, cathartic looping drums, and punchy Collins vocals. I don't think it's a stretch to say it's the best cover of a Beatles song ever recorded, and personally I think it beats out the Beatles version.
Phil tacks on a brief reprise of him singing "Over the Rainbow", which I have heard is intended to be a tribute to John Lennon, who was murdered right around the time "Face Value" was being completed. The cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows" itself though was something Phil had already wanted to do, as Phil has stated that he already had the whole track completed well before Lennon was killed.
The production of this album, by Collins and assisted by Hugh Padgham, is masterful and supremely tasteful, and in the end, this album is truly timeless. Phil puts himself into the recording, and he ends up with an album that is oozing with deep feeling and is all the better for it--"Face Value" is a brilliant album from one of the finest artists the so-called 'rock era' (I'd even go as far to say, of all time). Although this CD version is not an "original recording remastered" version of the album, the sound quality is still truly excellent, a testament to how well it was originally recorded--I think a lot of the credit should go to engineer Hugh Padgham, who continued to work with Phil and Genesis with glorious results on subsequent '80s releases. I highly encourage you not just to get this album (if you don't already) since it's absolutely essential, but also the "Face Value" DVD that's part of the "Classic Albums" series--it prominently features Phil himself, including performances from him, and it's a terrific look at the making of this incredible work of art. The 1993 Gold CD version (pretty hard to find at this point and probably quite expensive) is also a wonderful item, with fantastic sound quality, excellent liner notes added, and a faithful reproduction of the original gatefold album that is missing from the 'standard' CD edition.