Predictability is something of a double-edged sword for successful pop artists. If P they hew too closely to what they've already done, they risk boring themselves and their audience; but should they move too far away from the sound that endeared them to their fans, they risk cutting back their following. No wonder, then, that only the strongest talents manage to maintain both musical growth and consistent sales.
That's one reason to be impressed with "No Jacket Required" (Atlantic 7 81240), the latest effort from Phil Collins. After scoring a No. 1 single with "Against All Odds (Look at Me Now)," one of last year's more memorable ballads, it would have been natural to expect Collins, due at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 21, to stuff his new album with more of the same. "No Jacket Required" leans in the opposite direction, however, favoring drum-driven dance numbers and virtually ignoring the slow stuff. Yet Collins hasn't forsaken his fans, for the songs here are as accessible as they are energetic.
"Sussudio," which opens the album, is a case in point. The song is built over a synthesized drum and bass pulse that throbs irresistibly under Collins' soaring vocal line, while a rhythm guitar chatters and the horn section ducks and jabs. The feel isn't exactly R & B, but then, neither is Collins an R & B singer, and that's exactly why the song works so well. Instead of the smooth propulsion you'd expect from an R & B artist, what you get is brash insistence.
The ability to make the music reflect the content of his songs has been something of an ace in the hole for Collins. His fans, after all, seem as attracted to his emotional realism as to his melodies; "Against All Odds," for example, worked so well because the minor key progression of the verse seemed to mirror the longing and struggle Collins sang about, lending a degree of drama that turned the chorus into a real moment of triumph.
"No Jacket Required" doesn't go in for dramatics to that extent, but it does take care to match its settings and sentiments. "One More Night," this album's ballad, takes the form of a final plea in a dying relationship, and Collins underplays it perfectly, setting the mood with whispering strings and a drum machine that percolates like late-night coffee as his voice hesitates, reaching for the notes of the chorus. Similarly, "Don't Lose My Number" uses suspenseful chords, breathless drumming and crashing percussion to suggest the sort of pursuit the verse sketches, then mitigates matters with a resounding major chord chorus. "Who Said I Would" conveys the frustrated rage of an undelivered rant with relentlessly snarling guitar and hyperactive drumming.
For all that Collins is eager to move ahead with the music, he never quite forsakes the sound for which he has become known. He still fattens his arrangements with the Phenix Horns, their staccato provides a familiar parry to the punch of the drums, and there are even some echoes of his work with Genesis in "Take Me Home" and "Doesn't Anybody Stay Together Anymore." Mostly, though, it's his production sound, with its gated drums and electronically enhanced contours, that's been a constant in his solo work.
As such, his production of Eric Clapton's "Behind the Sun" (Warner Brothers 25166-1) comes as something of a surprise. True, the sound on the album is different than that of Clapton's past few efforts. Gone is the lazy ease of the rhythm beds, which shuffled happily beneath Clapton's stinging guitar; gone, too, is the vocal mix that let the guitarist's voice slide into a bluesy mumble.
But rather than making Clapton over in his own image, Collins has gone for the strengths that the guitarist's recent work had overlooked. For one thing, this album makes a better case for Eric Clapton the singer than anything he's recorded in years. It isn't simply the extent to which Clapton pushes the limits of his voice, as he does to great effect on the gentle title song; he also proves himself more of a pop stylist, both on "She's Waiting" and the driving "Forever Man" (the latter having been produced by Ted Templeman and Lenny Waronker). Moreover, Clapton's band plays with surprising vigor, whether pushing energetically through "Just Like a Prisoner" or putting a slow boil under "Same Old Blues."
Granted, there are some missteps. "Knock on Wood" is an agreeable enough cover, thanks in large part to the easy groove established by drummer Jamie Oldaker and bassist Duck Dunn, but Clapton's vocals sound decidedly secondhand, while "Something's Happening" (another Templeman/Waronker number) follows the lead of Clapton's mid-'70s hits too closely to stand on its own. By and large, though, "Behind the Sun" does an admirable job of revitalizing Clapton's sound without much changing it, and it will be interesting to see just how this aging guitar hero, who'll be at Merriweather Post Pavilion June 27, maintains his progress.