In Defense of … Genesis’ ‘Invisible Touch’
It's hard to overstate how uncool it was to be a Genesis fan in 1986. They’d always been uncool, of course, but in the past, most of their non-coolness had come from their associations with prog-rock, that dorkiest and most pretentious of rock’s many ‘70s offshoots.
By 1986, thanks to the exploding popularity of Phil Collins’ solo career, they represented both prog-rock and the most insipid extremes of Top 40 and adult contemporary radio. To most of my high school classmates, they were the worst of both worlds: schmaltzy ballads and odd time signatures. Dopey, love-struck lyrics and one-handed keyboard solos. Could there be anything worse?
To the haters, the answer to that question was a resounding “Yes,” arriving in the form of Genesis’ 13th studio album, 'Invisible Touch.' It had everything that drove the anti-Collins crowd nuts. There were sappy ballads ('In Too Deep,' 'Throwing It All Away'); a faux-political anthem that was really just an excuse to sneak in that weird synth bass from 'Sussudio' ('Land of Confusion'); a flashy, meandering instrumental ('The Brazilian'); and not one, but two sprawling, proggy epics, 'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight' and the two-part, 10-minute 'Domino.' It was the apotheosis of Genesis’ quest to merge prog-rock and pop, a quest that dated back at least to their 1978 hit, 'Follow You Follow Me.'
For all those reasons and more, I loved it. I still do. Though I stop short of sharing Patrick Bateman’s opinion from 'American Psycho' that it’s the group’s “undisputed masterpiece” (from the Collins era, the classic for me remains 1983’s 'Genesis'), I do think it’s one of the most interesting albums of the entire decade precisely because of how well it mixes together pop and prog. On 'Invisible Touch,' Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford brazenly tried to have it both ways, indulging their love of catchy melodies and expansive, heavily orchestrated stadium rock. And for the most part, they succeeded.
More than any previous Genesis record, 'Invisible Touch' announced itself as a pop album. It opened with the smash-hit title track, as bright and affable as anything from Collins’ solo output, a track that ingeniously managed to recast Banks’ ornate keyboard fills as bits of New Wave whimsy, connecting dots no one knew existed between Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and, say, Naked Eyes.
But as much as 'Invisible Touch' sometimes clearly built upon the success of Collins’ solo career (and the success of Rutherford’s side project, Mike + the Mechanics), much of the album also seemed to exist to reassert the band’s prog-rock roots, not to mention Collins’ gifts as an innovative studio drummer.
Many of the eerie sound effects that ring through the instrumental mid-section of 'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight' were generated using drum machines and Collins’ Simmons electronic drum kit. The instrumental that closes the album, 'The Brazilian,' also makes heavy use of electronic drums for dramatic effect. Even on the poppiest album of their career, Genesis were still experimenting with new sounds and producing music that was progressive in the truest sense of the word.
It’s also worth noting that for all its shiny mid-‘80s pop sonics, 'Invisible Touch' is, thematically at least, a pretty dark record. Though most of the tracks are love songs, the love is nearly always spurned or unrequited. “Need I say emotions are something we don’t share?” Collins croons to his estranged lover on “Throwing It All Away.” On the seemingly sunny title track, he even admits at one point, “I don’t really know her / I only know her name.”
On 'Anything She Does,' he declares his love, pathetically, for a pinup ripped from a magazine, over music so peppy it would exhaust Dexys Midnight Runners. The most passionate expression of love on the album arguably comes on the chorus of 'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,' which is a junkie’s cri de couer for his drug.
'Invisible Touch'’s centerpiece is 'Domino,' the two-part, 10-minute epic that dominates the album’s second half. After its moody, mysterious first half, 'In the Glow of the Night,' it explodes into the chugging rhythms and apocalyptic imagery of its second part, 'The Last Domino.' “Take a look at the beautiful river of blood,” is not the kind of lyric most people associate with Collins, but there it is, reminding everyone that this was still three-fifths of the band that once did a double album ('The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway') about a juvenile delinquent who gets sucked into another dimension and has his dick cut off.
In its day, 'Invisible Touch' received lukewarm reviews. Robert Christgau dismissed the album’s pop hooks as “coercive,” whatever that means. The Chicago Tribune said it lacked the inventiveness of Gabriel’s 'So' (released that same year, and just as commercially successful), leveling the predictable and popular criticism that many of its tracks “could almost pass as outtakes from [Collins' solo album] 'No Jacket Required.'” “Will the Free World ever tire of Phil Collins?” sniffed the Tribune critic. (Turns out the answer was yes, but it took about another 15 years.)
These days, it seems to be mostly remembered, reductively, for the ballads and that earworm title track. But in its day, 'Invisible Touch' was something unique: an album that fused the synth-driven pop of the mid-‘80s with the instrumental expansiveness of progressive rock. It was a feat not even Genesis themselves could replicate, despite their best efforts on 1991’s 'We Can’t Dance,' their final studio album with Collins.
'Invisible Touch' might not be the best album from Collins-era Genesis, but it deserves to be seen as more than just the extension of his solo career it is so often dismissed as. If I could still fit into my T-shirt from the 1987 tour of the same name, I’d still wear it proudly -- even to a high school reunion.