Review Summary: 'We Can't Dance' is Genesis at their synth-pop stage with Phil Collins being quite the control freak on this album for good and ill - fans expecting progressive Genesis will likely be disappointed, however.
1991's We Can't Dance
marks the end of Genesis' studio career with Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, and Tony Banks, who comprise the synth-pop trio of latter-end Genesis material. Recall now that Genesis began as a progressive band in the late 1960s with Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. Back then, Collins was on the drumset. Around 1976, Gabriel left the band with Hackett following suit a few years later to pursue other musical endeavors, and Collins jumped to vocals. As a result of Collins' influence, the band began to shift from full-bore prog to a more radio-friendly group. Naturally, this meant that song lengths and content were nipped and tucked so that the band could find success in mainstream radio. Through the late '70s and up into the early '90s when this album was released, the band began to become more and more pop-oriented and less and less progressive, much to the dismay of fans of early Genesis. However, even with Collins taking the stick and having a much greater say in creative control, this album has some progressive remnants of early Genesis material.
As a result, this Collins dominance is both a curse and a blessing for We Can't Dance
. As a frontman and a vocalist, he is incredibly strong and exhibits an excellent range and tone. In spite of this, the album can be distracting to the point that one wonders if it's Collins running the entire show without his other bandmates. This leads one to wonder how much say Collins did have on this album. In some spots, his dramatic, unwavering voice dominates and practically supersedes the instrumentation of Rutherford and Banks - almost to the point that the listener questions if he's listening to a Phil Collins solo effort. Accordingly, the feeble synths, simple guitar, and uninspiring drumming in a small number of the songs is thoroughly disappointing, considering that these three men were on classic Genesis albums such as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
. Fortunately for the listener, Collins' presence is moreso a blessing than a curse - unless, of course, the listener in question is a rabid anti-Collins individual. It really is no secret that Collins' vocals are front and center on the album, but Rutherford and Banks do a splendid job, for the most part, in their musical roles.
We Can't Dance
brilliantly shines in particular with the more carbonated of the pop songs - excuse the awful pun - than the songs with a lot less pep. The ballad-like tracks on this album come out flat; again, excuse the awful conclusion of the aforementioned pun. Soda jokes aside, the more energetic tracks are the biggest highlights of the album.
The best track that exemplifies this bouncy, bubbly style is the satirical Jesus He Knows Me
. Around this time, televangelism was running rampant on TVs in America, and many of these televangelists were frauds, promising fiscal and financial success to their audiences provided that their audiences send them money. This backwards philosophy is ruthlessly and seemingly effortlessly conveyed by Collins. Portraying one of these fake TV preachers who's behind-the scenes "getting richer day by day," Collins promises his audience "a piece of paradise" and "a pocketful of miracles," instructing his parishioners that he can be found in the phonebook - "just call my toll free number: you can do it anyway you want, just do it right away!" Collins effectively portrays the screams and shouts of these televangelists in the bridge, proclaiming that if the listener wants to get closer to Him [Jesus], to get on his knees and start praying. Collins' tongue must have been constantly in his cheek while writing this song and shooting the video for it. Instrumentally, the synths and guitars are that trademark poppy sound, plucked and played in staccato fervor, while Collins' simple bass-snare-bass-snare-bass-snare pulsates the song on each beat. Other highlight pop tracks include the superbly-done Living Forever
and the mid tempo title track We Can't Dance
, sporting the classic "I can't dance, I can't talk, the only thing about me is the way that I walk" chorus and a memorable percussion section featuring tempo blocks and a resemblance to raindrops.
The ballads on We Can't Dance
are not executed as well, thanks in part to the Collins curse. Again, it can be difficult for a casual listener to decipher between a song from this album and a song from any Collins solo album; as it stands, both careers were in fruition at this point. However, there are two standout ballad-esque tracks: No Son of Mine
, which tells a somber story of a soured father/son relationship. As the father disowns his son in the track, the latter sings, "Oh, his words, how they hurt me, I'll never forget it - and as the time, it went by, I lived to regret it." As the song progresses, the son returns to his father many years later - Collins muses that others say that "Time is a healer and now [his] wounds are not the same" - but the father continues to refuse to acknowledge that the son is his own. Throughout the outro underneath a morose guitar solo, the anguish of the cast aside son is accurately portrayed, although the track is far from elegiac musically.
One last aspect of this album that needs to be addressed is the progressive elements that can be found on this album. While it is far from the 1970s Genesis, the remnants of progressive Genesis can be found in tracks such as Driving the Last Spike
, a song about the English railway workers that changes in tempo, dynamics, and tone throughout, and the album's closer, Fading Lights
. Both clocking in at just over ten minutes, the synths, guitars, and percussion are engaging and experimental, as opposed to being looped continuously underneath Collins' vocals. The outro solo to Fading Lights
is very well done, and a terrific last song ever recorded by this Genesis trio.
Overall, this album is a mixed bag with more positives than negatives. The zippy, energetic tracks such as Jesus He Knows Me
and Living Forever
are wonderful tracks that exhibit Collins at his best vocally, while the progressive-in-nature tracks such as Driving the Last Spike
that undergo beautiful changes as the song develops, would please fans of early Genesis. We Can't Dance
stumbles the most with the ballads, which sound like they were taken from Collins' solo efforts due to the abrupt disappearance of Rutherford and Banks on this album. All told, the album is a worthwhile purchase simply for the recommended tracks, and is highly recommended to those who love Phil Collins' work, regardless if he was a control freak on this album or not. Fans of early prog Genesis are encouraged to stay away, however, save for Driving the Last Spike
and Fading Lights
Jesus He Knows Me
Driving the Last Spike
No Son of Mine