At first glance, Genesis' "We Can't Dance" (Atlantic 82344, arriving in record stores today) looks to be something of a step backward for the band. Although it's the group's first new release in five years, it makes no attempt to play up the singles-oriented approach that made the band's last album, "Invisible Touch," such a success.
If anything, it finds Genesis moving in the opposite direction. Instead of three-minute pop songs with pithy choruses and radio-ready hooks, the songs on "We Can't Dance" are more epic in their proportions. "No Son of Mine," the current single, clocks in at a hefty six minutes, 39 seconds, while a couple actually stretch past the 10-minute mark.
As such, any listener looking for another dose of Phil Collins-style froth is in for a surprise. But it's a good surprise, for "We Can't Dance" combines the ambition of the band's art-rock period with the pop-savvy of its recent platinum albums.
It may not seem that way, since the songs on "We Can't Dance" have little in common with recent hits like "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" or "Land of Confusion." Between their rambling verses and lengthy instrumental asides, new numbers like "Driving the Last Spike" and "Living Forever" hearken back to the expanses of "Watcher of the Skies" and "Cinema Show," dramatic set pieces that pushed the rock song form to its limits.
But there's a difference this time around. Even though Genesis is pulling away from the pop frivolity of its most recent efforts, the group hasn't lost its fondness for melody. So even though these songs are longer than the band's big hits, they're every bit as tuneful.
Granted, not every number comes across as an art-rock extravaganza. "Since I Lost You," for instance, is a heartbreak number that sounds as simple and straight-forward as Misunderstanding" did 10 years ago, while "Never a Time is as short and sweetly melodic as anything on Collins' last solo album.
Still, it's the large-scale songs that stand out. "Driving the Last Spike," for instance, takes a decidedly panoramic approach as it pays tribute to the building of Britain's railways (now there's a catchy idea), but the song's scope never seems to get in the way of the music.
Why not? Because by constructing the song around recurring themes and vigorous melodies, alternating Collins' vocal with instrumental interludes from Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, the group makes the music move the story along, giving it a sense of drama that goes well beyond anything the words alone could have achieved.
As a result, its slowly unfolding structure builds to a triumphant finale without taxing the listener's patience.
That flair for the dramatic isn't restricted to the music, by the way. From the anxious fretting of the hit-and-run driver in "Dreaming While You Sleep" to the slick insincerity of the TV preacher in "Jesus Knows Me," these songs boast some of the band's best-drawn narratives.
Indeed, apart from the redneck hero of "I Can't Dance" -- which, like most English attempts to capture the American South, never gets more than ankle-deep -- the characterizations Collins provides here rank among his best singing yet.
But that's in keeping with the rest of the album. Although there are quite a few rockers who have been recording as long as Collins, Banks and Rutherford, few ever produce albums that benefit from those years of experience as much as "We Can't Dance" does. This, really, is what classic rock should be -- proof that regression can, in fact, lead to musical progress.