Six years have passed since Phil released his last studio album, although he
excuses himself by pointing to Tarzan, the fact is this was the longest gap
between two solo albums ever for him. Because of the commercial failure of
Dance into the Light, pressure is on Phil this time around to prove his
detractors wrong. While a small group of devotees were hoping for a
miracle breakthrough, a substantial number of mean-spirits were also patiently
waiting for Phil to fall flat on his face. After listening to Testify in
its entirety, it seems to me that neither would get their wish. However,
what I can say without reservation is that this album captures an artist in
evolution and in my opinion it holds great promise for the future.
My initial assessment after the first few listens was that I loved about 50% of the album, the other half was not bad either but was marred here and there by unimaginative lyrics and a vocal delivery that lacked teeth. To my pleasant surprise a few songs from the latter half have since grown on me. For instance, the sweetness and warmth of a lullaby like "Come with Me" has won me over, so has the compelling storyline and philosophical musings of "It's not too Late".
Overall the album is very mellow, which is only fitting coming from a man who has finally learned to settle down and treasure the simple joys in life. With a new marriage and a baby in the last few years, how can we blame the man for sounding even more happy and content than on "Dance into the Light". It's all too easy to dismiss this batch of songs as fluff/mush, but it seems to me that the change in music is only reflection of a change in Phil's approach to life, no more sadness, anger, resignation or regrets, just a man comfortable in his own skin.
Naturally some early PC era fans are disappointed because they were expecting a return to the darker and edgier songs Phil used to put out up to "...But Seriously". However instead of revisiting the horn-spiked rock/R&B of the past Phil decided to experiment by going in an entirely different direction, i.e., mixing in some computer-generated sounds to spice up the music. The overall effect is ear-pleasing and highly accessible pop. Also most lyrics are very positive and uplifting, which take some getting used to if you are expecting the usual tormented love-loss type ballads. Given proper promotion I can see this album surpass the last two PC albums commercially as I see potential in attracting younger audiences. However, the relentless bashing it's been receiving on Paperlate is also no surprise (this is musically about as far removed from Genesis as possible). Seriously, do we really expect old proggers to admit they like straight-ahead love songs without dying of embarrassment first? I think not.
The Leo Sayer cover "Can't Stop Loving You" is actually excellent, I bet it's going to be a radio hit (at least on Adult Contemporary stations, and pop stations too for that matter if they have the guts to play a Phil Collins song). If I didn't know beforehand I wouldn't guess that this was a cover tune. Phil's lead vocals on this track turn back the years by at least a decade. And let me tell you it's thrilling to hear THAT VOICE again. Remember the Good Old Days when you never need to worry about whether he could hit that note? For once the record company made a good choice with regard to first single. If this doesn't become a hit I don't know what will.
Of the PC originals, "Through My Eyes" is my personal favorite. TME is classic PC along the veins of "Find a Way to My Heart", and its highly uplifting grooves even hark back to "Take Me Home". Melodically simple as can be, yet the music flows so naturally and logically that there is an instant familiarity to it. I can see it turn into an instant sing-along standard in live concerts (if Phil ever tours again, that is, sigh). I also love the instrumental arrangements beneath the lead vocals. This is one of the most drum-heavy tracks on the album and also features great use of the horns.
Another track that immediately caught my attention was the title track. "Testify" is a gospel-flavored power ballad in keeping with its religious-sounding song title. It somehow reminds me of "I Wish it Would Rain Down" albeit with a positive spin. Nice use of the choir to build atmosphere. Its unadorned lyrics may be hard for a Genesis fan to swallow, though.
It is unusual for me to take a particular liking to "Don't Get Me Started" since with few exceptions I don't generally like message songs. However this track has one of the strongest melodies on the album and whoever said it had a "Genesis-feel" was right. Some of the key changes remind me of "Jesus He Knows Me" in a slower tempo. I like that line "there is one man under his big umbrella, while it's raining on you and me." If it were up to me this would be the next single.
Most of the rest of the album are populated with songs that are rather catchy but a bit interchangeable. Some otherwise good songs such as "Driving Me Crazy" are held back by overly generic lyrics. No doubt this will provide endless fodder for Phil-bashers who were convinced the man had turned into a ball of Jell-O over the years. I actually laughed at that wicked joke on Paperlate about how Phil should learn that there are words other than "heart" and "love". However, at the end of the day, most of us do appreciate his sincerity. Isn't that one of the biggest appeals of Phil Collins as an artist in the first place? I think Phil should be complimented for writing songs that reflect his genuine feelings instead of feigning anguish when there is none. Anyway to my ears most of the songs sound sweet and endearing instead of syrupy a la boybands.
Overall I think the album is definitely an improvement over "Dance into the
Light" and while it may not become the
big comeback that we hoped for it is a promising start. I disagree with
the widespread criticism on the usage of electronic instrumentation, it is an
important element of this album that distinguishes it from previous ones.
I think it is encouraging that Phil continues to experiment with new musical
ideas at this stage in his career. Since he said he would be focusing more
on studio work from now on, here is hoping the next album would be even more
adventurous and eclectic.