An unlikely aristocrat

Phil Collins is probably the most unlikely subject for me to ever post about; I certainly could not imagine him being the subject of my interest, whichever perspective I might take. I never got into Genesis, never enjoyed his vocal pitch, never found a redeeming angle in his songs (save for the guilty pleasure “Against All Odds”, but even that is essentially a trigger for very fond and very specific memories – it could have been just about any other song by anyone else, really).

Yet an ageing Phil Collins caught my attention in recent weeks: more precisely, the cover artwork for the remastered re-releases of his classic 1980s albums.

Originally, each one of these albums featured a close-up of Phil’s face in different angles; one could say “too close-up for comfort”, a series of in-your-face portraits that conveyed and somehow prepared the listener for the full-on pop barrage of Phil – strident, over-excited, self-referential – and very generic, if crafted to perfection. In a recent interview Phil Collins expressed how being the frequent subject of derision by critics and fellow musicians back in the 1980s was quite hurtful, as he couldn’t quite understand why it happened; I’d say he was a victim of his own very deliberate and miscalculated over-exposure and over-proximity.

So I never even enjoyed the original covers as design pieces in themselves; these 2016 re-releases, however, are a different matter. For these particular editions, a present rendition of the original covers was re-shot, re-enacting Phil’s original photo sessions, yet presenting him at the current age of 65.

phil1982 phil2015

And somehow I’ve felt these “updated” cover portraits redeem the originals. The music may still be a re-packaged, predictable exercise in nostalgia, but it is explicitly and honestly presented as the pop heritage of an ageing musician – with an emphasis on the definite temporal distance.

Formally speaking, the covers are still further chapters in narcissistic omni-presence; yet I also see a humility shining through, a man refusing to engage in exercises of self-reinvention that he knows would further perpetuate his original inadequacy.

They are portraits of a man at peace with his legacy, regardless of how tasteful this legacy might be. There is a certain aristocracy in ageing gracefully, in being at peace with one’s growing frailty, particularly when it begins to reveal itself in our features, and particularly in this day and age of boundless plastic surgery, endless photoshopping, obsessive self-rehearsing. The body as a hallucinated construction versus the body as the first witness to a life story. As far as I’m concerned, one of the most unlikely pop aristocrats has risen, and he has perversely accomplished that magic trick by releasing a set of obsessive close-ups yet again, its mimetic nature amplifying every detailed difference sculpted by time.

The cover design for Bowie’s penultimate album “The Next Day” (2013) displayed him circa 1977 blatantly hidden behind a white square, an irreducible wall of temporal and semantic opacity; this series of new Phil Collins covers accomplish something quite similar – and who knows, maybe even more effective conceptually: Phil at 65, his face itself the naked face of the time gone by, and in this way immune to mindless revisitation.