Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

Selling England by the Pound (1973) – It gets off on an unpromising start, with Gabriel singing a capella (and here it bears quoting the lyrics verbatim):

"Can you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes.

That's not the way to start a record! And what the hell is a unifaun? Is that some sort of "clever" play on unicorn? But initial impressions can be misleading, and "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight" turns out to be perhaps the best Genesis song ever. The lyrics, while still not making much literal sense, keep improving as the song goes on, with some of Gabriel's finest, most unaffected singing as the band behind him slowly builds up until it reaches a swift keyboard crescendo towards the end. It's a compressed "Supper's Ready" in eight minutes, with only three or four separate tunes stitched together, and this time much more seamlessly than the rather clumsy transitions that plagued most of Foxtrot. The band's increased professionalism makes this a much smoother ride than before, but the flipside of smooth and professional = increased boredom. The second song, "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" is the band's first attempt at the type of bent new-wavish pop that Peter Gabriel would pursue during his early solo career, but it's just not very good. It's got a hook....somewhere....but the chorus is kind of stupid and it's simply not that catchy or interesting. Much better are the extended prog epics, "Firth of Fifth" and "The Cinema Show". The latter concerns itself with the weighty subject of a couple going out on a date, with Gabriel taking both the male and female points of view, until near the middle he adopts the persona of Tiresias, the creature from Greek mythology who existed at points as both a man and a woman. It's as pretentious as it sounds, and if you can't handle pretentiousness, then you really have no business listening to Genesis records. Go pogo to the Ramones instead. All in all, the playing and songwriting are noticeably improved since the last album, but it wouldn't be a Genesis album without some noticeable low points. "The Battle of Epping Forest" is a supposedly humorous mock-epic involving East End gang fights, with Gabriel obnoxiously adopting his patentedly annoying 'playing different characters in a play' vocal affectations. I don't know jack about the British class system and neither do I wish to know, but a posh public school boy affecting a gruff Cockney accent comes across as condescending not to mention silly. An easily overlooked novelty tune, though? Not when it runs on to bloody near twelve minutes. More easily overlookable since it's so dull and lifeless and therefore easy to sleep through is the Phil Collins vocal spotlight, "More Fool Me", a three minute soft rock tune. Some incredulously note this tune as a highlight, saying that it's a pointer towards the type of pop records that Genesis and Collins would make in the '80s, and I have to ask, when is that a good thing? It's not even "Against All Odds" good, it's the type of bland second-rate balladry that would take up space hidden away as track 3 on side 2 of a mid-'80s Phil Collins solo album – totally forgettable, hookless and gormless.

Fans often rate this as the best Genesis album, but I don't really see it. Sure, it's the smoothest and most professional and least embarrassing of the early Genesis albums, but it also has one pretty sizable flaw in comparison to the other early Genesis albums – it's also the most boring. That may sound contradictory, that this at the same time contains some of Genesis' best and yet most boring music (sometimes the categories overlapping). It's got a low-energy, leisurely pace to it (the average song length coming to around ten minutes to make its point) and instrumental mix sounds muted and soft in comparison to the garish thumpings of Foxtrot or Nursery Cryme. This makes it initially difficult to get into – don't make this your first entry in the garden hedges of Genesis-land – but eventually repeated listenings slowly reveal its merits. ***1/2

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