Phil Collins is a perfect example of the contemporary English megastar. He’s personable, photogenic, witty, quotable and damn near ubiquitous, thanks to concurrent careers as Genesis frontman, solo singer-songwriter and sometime actor. Better still, he backs up that public image with precisely the sort of light, expressive voice and catchy, upbeat melodies tailor-made for American radio. As a result, Collins would seem to have everything a pop star would want, with one exception: respect. As far as the pop establishment is concerned, Collins is a lightweight, a fluff merchant, a man whose music rarely strays beyond such tried-and-true topics as love, longing and broken hearts.
That’s an image he tries to put behind him with … But Seriously, an album that avoids frivolity at all costs. Sure, there are romantic numbers, the usual tales of love gone wrong, but from “Colours,” an earnest objection to apartheid, to “Heat on the Street,” a muddled warning against political hypocrisy and urban unrest, the album’s greatest energies are focused on social, not personal, problems. Instead of turning each tune into a short sermon, however, Collins puts his pop smarts to work and tries to make his point the same way he’d sell any other song idea — first by folding it into an easily rhymed lyric, then by wrapping it in a catchy but understated melody.
When it works, as it does in the homelessness tune “Another Day in Paradise,” the album can be wonderfully involving. Trouble is, … But Seriously just doesn’t work often enough. What helps “Paradise” make its point is the way Collins personalizes the issue, homing in on that twinge of guilt most of us feel while trying to ignore street people, then grounding it with a naggingly effective hook. But none of the other songs manageès that immediacy. Whether in the “apartheid is bad” message of “Colours” or the “gosh, I still love you” sentiments of “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven,” Collins seems mired in generalities and abstractions; there’s nothing particularly personal about these songs, and that leaves the album annoyingly vague on the issues it raises, as if being concerned were somehow enough.
Worst of all, there’s none of the simple, uncomplicated joy that has marked Collins’s previous efforts. “Hang in Long Enough” may open the album with Collins’s signature swirl of brass and percussion, but apart from the jazzy “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” Collins seems to prefer the more somber colors provided by his synths. Maybe that’s a part of the new, socially aware image … But Seriously is meant to introduce. But frankly, Collins was a lot more fun — and effective — when he was frivolous.