By the time We Can’t Dance was released at the tail end of 1991, Genesis had already completed their metamorphosis from art-rock journeymen to pop behemoth. This move began with the departure of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett in the mid Seventies and solidified with drummer/vocalist Phil Collins’ world-beating solo success throughout the Eighties. At this point, it was almost impossible to tell Collins’ solo work apart from Genesis albums, so similar were they in sound. While that statement may come across as kind of an insult, it’s really not. Collins was among the finest pop craftsmen of the Eighties, and Genesis’s albums of the same period were smart and hooky pop affairs (with an instrumental dirge or two shoehorned in to remind the listener of the band’s progressive roots).
In a lot of ways, We Can’t Dance follows in the footsteps of both the previous band effort (1986’s Invisible Touch) and Collins’ most recent solo effort (1989’s …But Seriously). There’s a socially conscious edge to some of the songs, which fell right in line with Collins solo hits like Another Day in Paradise, while other songs were similar thematically and musically to Genesis hits like Land of Confusion and In Too Deep.
It’s to the band (which also includes guitarist Mike Rutherford and keyboardist Tony Banks)’s credit that the music doesn’t descend totally into self-parody. Despite the relatively anonymous material, it’s all played masterfully, and Collins (who is unfairly overlooked when it comes to great blue-eyed soul singers) shines throughout.
As with just about any latter-day Genesis/Collins album, any discussion has to start with the hit singles, and We Can’t Dance had many. My personal favorite is the moody, atmospheric ballad Hold on My Heart, but there’s also the tongue-in-cheek criticism of televangelists (even if it was half a decade too late to be relevant) on the fast-paced Jesus He Knows Me and the anti-commercialism themed I Can’t Dance (a bit ironic since I remember Genesis being plastered all over Michelob ads back in the day). Both songs would be heavy-handed if done by another band, but Genesis adds a bit of humor to the proceedings, making it all go down easy.
The humor disappears on the album’s most interesting track, No Son of Mine. The song starts off with a ticking drum machine and a guitar that sounds like an elephant’s roar before progressing into a full-bodied chugging rock anthem with Phil screaming his little balding head off. The subject matter is equally dramatic-a young man returns to the home that he left after some unnamed transgression by his father, only to be told that he’s been disowned. Without knowing exactly what the son has done to cause this, the song still packs a hell of an emotional wallop.
Family relationships, particularly those between a father and son, are the theme of several tracks here, not to mention the album cover. The heartfelt, swaying ballad Since I Lost You (rumored to be a tribute to Eric Clapton’s deceased son Conor) is the best of the album tracks, featuring a spine-tingling vocal performance by Collins and a hint of doo-wop in the chorus. Way of the World has a gentle swing to it that makes it enjoyable despite the infantile lyrics (“We all/agree/As far as we can see…There’s right/and there’s wrong/There’s weak, oh/And there’s strong”) that Collins has been known to lapse into, while Driving the Last Spike, another father/son tale, is interesting enough to hold your attention for its’ 10-minute running time. The Byrds/Beatles-ish Tell Me Why is another highlight, calling specific attention to Rutherford’s guitar playing.
We Can’t Dance‘s drawbacks have already been mentioned elsewhere in this review. The band’s self-plagiarism was reaching a fever pitch, and some of the songs sound completely anonymous, like the ballad Never a Time (which seems like a bland Xerox of the superior Hold on My Heart). Despite it’s shortcomings, however, it’s a mostly enjoyable effort, and Collins wisely decided to bow out after this album rather than slip into complete self-parody. If you’re a latter-day Genesis (or Phil Collins, or Mike & The Mechanics) fan or just enjoy well-crafted pop music with a rock edge, you probably won’t find much to quibble with here.