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In praise of Phil Collins, the Swiss Army knife of music

Phil in 2016

Phil in 2016 Drew Gurian/Invision/AP

Given the abundance of farewell tours, anniversary treks, and reunion shows passing through town each week, it's hard to tell whether music is coming or going—or actually evolving.

So it's fitting that the trend-transcending Phil Collins is currently on the North American leg of his Not Dead Yet Tour. A peek at setlists reveals that each concert is a spin through his '80s solo work, with a few choice Genesis cuts like "Invisible Touch" and "Throwing It All Away," and some spare '90s hits thrown in for good measure.

The trek, named after Collins’ brutally honest memoir, can also be read as a middle finger to his many detractors, and the online trolls who encourage them. The musician himself would be the first to admit this: On the occasion of his 2011 retirement, Collins elaborated on his unpopularity in an interview with FHM. Asked when he became "the pop star that nobody likes,” he responded "Around the time that the music was being played so incessantly people wanted to strangle me." In fact, he added, "It's hardly surprising that people grew to hate me. I'm sorry that it was all so successful. I honestly didn't mean it to happen like that!"

Later in the conversation, Collins expressed feeling disconnected from the rest of the current musical conversation. "I look at the MTV Music Awards and I think, ‘I can't be in the same business as this.' I don't really belong to that world and I don't think anyone's going to miss me. I'm much happier just to write myself out of the script entirely. I'll go on a mysterious biking holiday... And never return. That would be a great way to end the story, wouldn't it?"

Collins' bitterness has faded somewhat over the last seven years, but that self-deprecation and imposter syndrome haven't—perhaps because other people's expectations are always scraping up against his preferred musical reality. "I have these hackles that rise when people say, 'What's he doing Disney for? It's just kids' music,'" he writes in the liner notes to the recent boxed set Plays Well With Others, which collects his performances on other artists’ songs as well as other musicians’ recordings of his songs. "If you're a songwriter, especially, you should want to see what it feels like outside comfort zones and try to see what makes that music tick. You may fall on your arse every now and again, but it's something that I think you should strive to do."

In other words, Collins has never been afraid to do something totally offbeat: form a big band, or play both Live Aids, or join Eric Clapton's touring band, or write music for a movie called Brother Bear. Plays Well With Others is an uncommonly well-curated collection that establishes what an incredible musical c.v. he amassed out of the spotlight, as a studio collaborator and songwriter. Collins is a musical Swiss Army knife, capable of filling a variety of niches—soft rock, prog, synth-pop, jazz, classical, and hip-hop—depending on need.

On the new boxed set, there are echoes of his "In The Air Tonight" drum fill, of course—in the seaside ambience of Tears for Fears' "Woman In Chains," in Peter Gabriel's hair-raising "Intruder," and in Frida's hit fortress of synth-pop, "I Know There's Something Going On." But that's also Collins adding a light rhythmic touch to Brian Eno's electronic abstraction "Over Fire Island" and some skittering-critter beats to Brand X's jazz-fusion classic "Nuclear Burn," and some percussion shimmers to Tommy Bolin's "Savannah Woman." And he's also here lending massive new wave drums to Adam Ant's "Puss 'n Boots" and Chaka Khan's R&B-pop surge "Watching The World" (which also features some soul-nourishing backing vocals), as well as a more refined, restrained backbone to Howard Jones' "No One Is to Blame."

The Isley Brothers transform the Collins-written "If Leaving Me Is Easy" into candlelit R&B, and the aforementioned Brother Bear track, the nimble and orchestrated "Welcome," hews closer to his sophisticated '80s synth-pop than other Disney soundtrack work. Collins zigs when you expect him to zag, which is one reason he can shapeshift between so many genres. And his unabashed love of music and performing resonates with some surprising fans among his peers. "I came across a documentary on Ice-T," he recalls in the Plays Well With Others liner notes. "This journalist was interviewing him and going through his record collection. He said, 'My God, what's all this Phil Collins stuff?' Ice-T said, 'Don't mess with my Phil, man.'"

The Not Dead Yet Tour lives up to that refusal to conform to expectations. Due to back and leg problems, Collins isn't drumming on this tour; he walks onstage using a cane and then sits for most of the concert while emoting his hits. This fact has become an easy point for reviewers (and headlines) to touch on, often head-scratchingly so. For example, the sub-headline of a Montreal review said he was "confined to a chair"—untrue, since YouTube reveals he later stood for the haunted-mansion-creepy "In The Air Tonight"—and offered the inspiration-porn observation that he "bravely embraced his limitations and offered more than simple nostalgia." (As if a standing show would've instead overflowed with treacly sentiment and a softer, gentler Phil?)

How Collins moves and interacts with the band and stage setup is certainly fair game to point out in a live review. Depending on the night, Phil himself is making note of what he calls his "fucked" leg or foot from the stage, and his not drumming is a Big Deal, since that's inextricably linked with his legend. But making his physical presence a focal point also reflects an uncomfortable truth about how we view celebrities (and, in particular, musicians) who show visible signs of aging. That Collins is touring North America for the first time in 2010—after a very public retirement—is somehow less notable than the fact he is using a walking device and has some health issues. (Both things which he's freely discussed in interviews for years, for the record.)

This focus on the physical veneer is nothing new, of course. The idea that music superstars need to be larger-than-life totems of perfection dies hard. And with the cultural saturation of YouTube and Instagram, the nostalgic ideal of every pop star is now perpetuated, which can be jarring. (Sweater vest "Easy Lover" Phil won't be popping up on stage anytime soon.) The pressures of aging worsen when the artist in question is an often disparaged figure like Collins. Just ask Madonna, who said directly that "to age is a sin" while speaking at the 2016 Billboard Women in Music Awards. "You will be criticized, you will be vilified, and you will definitely not be played on the radio."

Or consider Axl Rose. Dave Grohl wasn't dinged for touring with Foo Fighters perched on a gigantic throne of guitars, but a Guns n' Roses live review when Rose used Grohl's seat mentioned immobility unfavorably, including the unflattering line, "The singer's inability to move prevented the band from working up any of the sex or danger that distinguished it in the first place." (Ouch.)

The up-front focus on Collins' perceived vulnerabilities is at odds with the musical power emanating from the stage. Judging by reviews and video, his voice remains in fine form, weathered by age and humbled by experience. His current backing band—featuring a horn section and Collins' son Nicholas holding down the drum chair—creates a revue-like atmosphere that suits the material and adds orchestral depth. Collins is more like a Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series kind of hero—a little worse for the wear physically but still a fierce competitor, the type of guy tough enough to come off the bench and wallop his way into immortality.

Phil Collins
When: 7 p.m. Sun. Oct. 21
Where: Target Center
Tickets: $53-$278; more info here