Most of my winter break played out to the tune of Phil Collins’s Face Value, his debut solo album released back in 1981. My dad put it on repeat every morning and in car rides where he made me turn off my “DIY crap” and put on something easier on the ears. I chose Face Value knowing it would be the happy medium.
It’s a brilliant album. Delivering us the impenetrable “In the Air Tonight,” Collins places himself on the same playing field as his former Genesis bandmate Peter Gabriel with a record that encompasses the genres of progressive rock, pop and funk. From the slow build of “In the Air” to the rhythmic bassline of “Behind the Lines,” Collins places a punchy synth and gated reverb drums beside piano interludes like “The Roof is Leaking.” Horns raise you up on one song, while the pull of a sitar and African-styled drums bring you back down to earth on another. Collins can do no wrong on Face Value; it’s his untouchable work of art that explores unforeseen bounds in music while charting the demise of his marriage.
So it makes sense that Francis and the Lights is so frequently compared to the former drummer and later singer of Genesis. The sound Francis has championed since 2007 is reminiscent of great prog-rock bands like Genesis and innovative in its modern-day fusion of genres through production that wasn’t accessible in the ’80s. Not to mention, Francis’s voice sounds so much like Phil’s, plain and simple. What Collins began, Francis has perfected, and while Francis has so far avoided horns and banjos, the punchy feel of songs like “See Her Out (That’s Just Life),” the opening track of 2016’s Farewell, Starlite!, has a similar effect as songs on Face Value. The opening notes bounce back and forth, rope you in and, if anything else, you want to see it out until the end.
Just like “See Her Out,” the opening notes of “Morning,” the first song off of Just For Us, pull us in. But this time, there’s a difference. While Farewell, Starlite! throws us into a whirlwind of synth, “Morning” is gentler, its piano slowly delivering us into the drums rather than bursting into them. And this time the piano is here to stay. “Morning” seems to be a continuation of the piano Francis used briefly in the song “Thank You” on Farewell, Starlite!, piano that I only wanted more of as the album drew to a close. But that’s the thing, the piano is what makes the song so crushingly beautiful, brief and bittersweet. An album that wasn’t necessarily tragic didn’t need the instrument that makes songs so.
Just For Us is different in this regard; the 26-minute album is sorrowful as it traces the slow demise of a relationship. The piano that draws us in takes various forms as the album, and the relationship, unfolds. But even as Francis sends us from the frigid snaps of “Morning” into the blaring synths of “Just For Us” and then back into the cool piano of “Faithful,” there’s a cohesive whole to the album. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell where one song starts and another ends.
The transition from “I Won’t Lie to You” into “Breaking Up” is perhaps the most beautiful on the album and best exemplifies its cohesiveness. The brevity of the former, a one minute and 12-second track, leads into the latter, and the two are inseparable in story and in song. Outside of this, the songs, whether blending together or not, repeatedly refer back to one another. “Never Back” is the ending to “Back in Time” as Francis continues to pour over the inaccessible nature of the past, how everything that led him to this point is untouchable. This inaccessibility, the unavoidable nature of demise — it’s another layer of tragedy on a narrative that builds itself out of loss.
Inaccessibility is a theme that permeates the album, for while Farewell, Starlite! offered up more to the listener with its substantial tracks and features from Kanye West and remixes with Chance the Rapper, Just For Us is stripped down, barren almost, and untouchable for those who don’t participate in its story. Perhaps this is why on first listen the album seemed less-than; where I wanted to hear the jauntiness of songs like “May I Have This Dance,” there was only stripped down synth on “Tear It Up.” This isn’t to the album’s detriment; it is simply different, jarring to a degree on first listen.
But becoming a part of the story, a part of the album’s sadness and dwelling in its loss is what makes the listening experience dynamic. Reflexive in its self-referentiality, he invokes the parallels of God and belief, self-doubt and uncertainty to paint a full picture of everything that led to the relationship’s ultimate end, draping us in despair with simple lines like, “You could try to be gracious… You could try to be nice to me.” That simple sentiment is absolutely destructive in Francis’s feather-light voice. “Scream So Loud” best displays Francis’s signature minimalism, both in its lyrics and sound.
All of this sadness, this progression of emotion that becomes overbearing on certain parts of the album, culminates in the album’s final song “Cruise” which acts as a release, a reckoning with the heavy emotion of the previous songs. Twenty-four minutes builds to this, and while we’re more emotionally wrecked than we were before starting the album, “Cruise” is what makes it all feel like catharsis rather than a funeral. In Francis’s own words, it’s “straight from the horse’s mouth,” entirely uncut and raw.
The unity of Francis’s mournful Just For Us is what places him on a plane separate from Face Value. While the sound is similar, the invocation of minimalism that pervades the album is individual to Francis and Francis alone. It’s his expertise, after all. But like Collins he fuses many methods in doing this, genre-bending not only on a musical scale but a branding one. His ability to breed sadness while simultaneously transcending categorization as a sad songwriter with sad songs is seen in his latest business venture: “Morning,” the new theme for “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” And so we’re left asking the same question people asked of Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel and the entire brand Genesis built on doing the unexpected — Francis, who and what are you?