Going Back

Phil Collins

Atlantic, 2010


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I can’t remember the last time I had such intensely mixed feelings about an album.

Anyone who has followed the career of Genesis drummer-cum-vocalist-cum-platinum-selling-solo-artist-cum-semi-retired-grandpa Phil Collins is well aware of the man’s Motown obsession. It’s not just that one of his first acts as a solo artist was to have the audacity to cover the Supremes (“You Can’t Hurry Love,” from 1982’s Hello, I Must Be Going!); around the same time, he somehow convinced his Genesis bandmates Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford to add the Earth Wind & Fire horns to one of their songs (Abacab’s “No Reply At All”).

The ever-so-British Collins’s classic soul fixation reached its logical apex with Going Back, which finds the erstwhile prog-pop icon not just covering an album of Motown classics, but doing his level best to recreate them, to the point where he hired the surviving members of the studio’s famous session band the Funk Brothers (guitarists Eddie “Chank” Willis and Ray Monette and bassist Bob Babbitt), and had each song’s original horn and string parts painstakingly transcribed and re-recorded. Engineer Yvan Bing even gets a credit for “lo-fi-ing” the Collins-produced recordings until they have the distinctive, dense-and-crunchy feel of vintage mono.

That attention to detail and extreme faithfulness to the source material means that, other than Collins’ distinctive vocals, these are virtual recreations of the original recordings. I have enjoyed many a cover in my time; I’m often fascinated hearing artists reinterpret the work of others and bring their own personal touches to them. Nothing of the sort happens here. This is simply 18 tracks of Phil Collins trying as hard as he can to replicate the exact sounds he heard coming out of his radio while growing up, except with him singing and playing drums and keys. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The slavishness of these recreations puts Going Back in a strange limbo, hanging somewhere between heartfelt homage and well-intended cultural appropriation; Collins is, after all, a very white, very British senior citizen recreating the works of young African Americans. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—Lamont Dozier himself contributed a laudatory message to the liner notes, and the writers of these songs probably got a nice royalty bump from this album—but for at least this listener, it just feels weird.

The best part of the album is the pure enthusiasm and passion heard in every one of Collins’ vocals. Calling this album a labor of love is an understatement; it’s clear that Collins absolutely adores these songs (as well he should). High points include giddy remakes of familiar classics like “(Love Is Like A) Heatwave,” “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me For A Little While),” and “Standing In The Shadows Of Love.” Collins’ efforts are given polish and authenticity by the presence of Babbitt, Willis and Monette, who play with the same ebullience, groove, and precision as always.

There’s also an element of poignancy given that Collins likely understood this would be his last go-round behind the drum kit. At this point in his physical deterioration, he was forced to duct-tape the sticks into his hands in order to play, which he does serviceably well, although it’s probably fortunate that these songs don’t require the kind of powerhouse drumming he often contributed to Genesis in younger days.

The closest Collins comes to a misstep here is his decision to tackle “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”; as meticulous as his musical recreation of the song is, it’s just too much of a socio-cultural reach. It feels almost like someone had taken a filmed performance of the song from 1972 and CGI’d Collins into it—that cool, and that strange. As the song played I couldn’t help thinking of the old Sesame Street routine: “One of these things is not like the others; one of these things does not belong.”

But that’s just me. If what matters most to you is the passion poured into a performance, then Going Back is a very enjoyable hour spent in the company of a musically gifted Motown superfan. Maybe someday the mild queasiness that comes over me when I listen to this album will fade; I hope so, but in the meantime I’m going to go back and listen to the originals again instead.

Rating: B+

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