Genesis’ Abacab is art rock for pop people

Genesis’ Abacab is art rock for pop people

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

In the 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, the film’s main character Patrick Bateman commits an unthinkable crime: While talking about Genesis to two prostitutes, he goes from 1980’s Duke to 1986’s Invisible Touch without once mentioning 1981’s Abacab.

“I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke,” says Bateman, portrayed with a crisp sheen of sociopathy by Christian Bale.

“Before that, I really didn’t understand any of their work. It was too artsy. Too intellectual. It was on Duke where Phil Collins’ presence became more apparent. I think Invisible Touch is the group’s undisputed masterpiece. It’s an epic meditation on intangibility. At the same time, it deepens and enriches the meaning of the preceding three albums… Listen to the brilliant ensemble playing of Banks, Collins, and Rutherford. You can practically here every nuance of every instrument.”

As a window into Bateman’s psychosis, his opinion of Genesis is illuminating. But it’s more than that. The speech is meant as a satirical condemnation of the ’80s, the decade in which American Psycho takes place. It’s also too pat, a statement of glib reductionism that’s no more deep or nuanced than the film’s laminated, Reagan-era tableau. 

Which might be why Bateman skips over Abacab. It’s not an easy album to neatly dismember and dispose of, even for those who murderously despise Genesis’ drummer and lead singer, Phil Collins. It’s complex, in a simple way. It’s uneven, in a consistent way. And it’s weird, in an accessible way.

By 1981, Collins—along with keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist Mike Rutherford—had held Genesis together for six years following the departure of original frontman Peter Gabriel. The shift was not a jarring one. The band’s evolution from dense, extravagant progressive rock to clipped, concise progressive rock was gradual. In their own ways, many other prog bands were undergoing a similar sonic downsizing at the time, including major players like Rush and Yes. For Rush, the grandiosity of 1976’s 2112 gave way to the new-wave gleam of 1982’s Signals; in Yes’ case, the sprawl of 1971’s “Roundabout” gave way to the brisk romanticism of 1983’s “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.”

Measured against Gabriel’s yardstick, Genesis’ downsizing was considered a sellout. That’s not an unfair assessment. Collins clearly had a populist heart on his sleeve, especially compared to the thespian, conceptual tendencies of Gabriel. But Gabriel made heartfelt pop songs after going solo, too; he scored a smash with his superb debut single, “Solsbury Hill,” in 1977, a year before the Collins-led Genesis managed to muster its first hit, the catchy, but less dimensional “Follow You, Follow Me.” Gabriel’s song was smarter and more inventive, but that doesn’t mean Collins was neither. Abacab is proof. The album’s biggest hit, its title track, is a seven-minute construct of stark synths, sharp guitar, throbbing bass, and surgical beats, before synth-pop had become widely accepted in the mainstream—at least in the U.S. If Abacab was meant to be a cold, calculated, commercial sellout, it succeeded in spite of itself.

The rest of Abacab is about as edgy as a day-spa manicure. But that doesn’t make it any less quirky and challenging. The production is massive yet hermetic, a marvel of compression and economy that still feels ready for the stadium. “Me And Sarah Jane” features hints of the odd structures, rhythmic counterpoint, and melodic twists of Gabriel-era Genesis, as does “Keep It Dark,” with its stabs and slashes of synths. The bubbly “No Replay At All” masks a manic loneliness, ventilated by brass on loan from Earth, Wind & Fire. Collins’ love of R&B creeps in elsewhere, but subliminally: in the bass-laden swing of the ballad “Like It Or Not,” and in the eerie yet percolating beat of “Man On The Corner,” which recalls the skeletal pinging of Timmy Thomas’ “Funky Me.”

Throughout the album, Collins pours his vocals into everything from an icy falsetto to a mock Cockney accent, but he never sounds forced. Even when stretched across Abacab’s longest track, “Dodo/Lurker,” he picks out an effortlessly spiraling melody as well as a spoken-word passage that somehow sounds charming instead of tedious. That track is the album’s strongest argument in favor of its prog pedigree, a vestige of vintage Genesis that shuffles through a minefield of quirks and bursts in a sweeping, multi-movement procession. It’s old-school prog, only scrubbed of fuzziness and given a spiffy haircut.

The vulnerability of Collins’ voice is Abacab’s greatest strength. At this point in Genesis’ creative arc, there’s still a coldness and abstraction to the music—one that would begin to fade by Invisible Touch. Paired with Collins’ warmth, it makes for a dramatic contrast, one that makes more of an implicit statement about humanity’s place in an increasingly technological world than an army of new-wavers singing robotically over robotic music—or even Gabriel, who piles abstraction atop abstraction, distance atop distance. As toweringly powerful as Gabriel’s solo work is, Abacab holds its own. Not that it has to be an either/or prospect. Banks and Rutherford were founding members, and their vision and ability provide not only a standard, but a continuity. Collins’ drumming itself is a thing of restrained, sculpted beauty. Distilling the ideals of progressive rock into minimalist forms—while keeping it catchy—is as hard, if not harder, than composing a triple-album free-for-all. And in Abacab’s case, it can be more rewarding.

It’s curious to speculate how Abacab might be received now if a certain shadow hadn’t been cast over it right out of the gate: Face Value. Phil Collins’ debut solo album came out seven months before Abacab—and while it’s frequently brooding tone is far from the peppy sound he’d flog on 1985’s No Jacket Required, it was enough of a pop crossover to predispose many longtime Genesis fans against Collins.

The ’80s, as American Psycho loves to point out, became a caricature of itself. Collins did the same. But in 1981, that wasn’t yet the case. The line between Genesis and Collins’ solo career had yet to be all but erased, and Collins was still living a sort of dual existence: By day he crooned pop hits with a smile on his face, and by night he tinkered with the body parts of progressive rock, twisting them into new shapes—and by doing so, coming to grips with a new era of plastic-wrapped identity and decadence. “When you wake in the morning / Wake and find you’re covered in cellophane,” Collins sings on “Abacab.” Maybe Collins has more in common with Batemen than even Batemen knew.