I've been a fan of Genesis since I was in my late teens. I heard my first album by the band in 1979, via Wind and Wuthering, although I had unwittingly heard some of their singles before that, I just didn't know it was them. My first listen to an entire album of theirs, then, was the Phil Collins fronted band. I only became familiar with the Peter Gabriel era records beginning a year or so after that.
Of the Collins fronted works, Abacab has long been my favorite. I think it perfectly balances their progressive tendencies with their then recent foray into pop music territory. It has commercial appeal, with a lot of hooks, but it also features inventive instrumental passages and creative song structures, which were always a mainstay of the band's work. The lyrics, too, are imaginative, not perfunctory, and nicely matched to the melodies.
The most important aspect of the album, for me personally, was upon realizing the conceptual framework of Abacab. I'm not suggesting that it was conceived as a concept album, per se, but the connections between the songs are unmistakable. It took more than a few listens until I noticed, but eventually I understood the main themes of the album to be identity and loss. Of course, these two ideas are closely linked, and perhaps ineluctably so on Abacab. The writers employ clever ways to express the themes, often using humor and oblique references.
The opening song, the title track of the album, is an almost 7 minute long, very danceable groove. Except for the long instrumental break that rides out the last 3 minutes, Abacab is a pop song of normal length for radio-friendly 1980s commerciality. The song's lyric, like many of their songs, on this album and on others, has a kind of detachment about it, a sly vagueness, yet it's written well enough that this doesn't necessarily hit you right away. The themes of identity and loss are not always obvious, but rather you have to pay some attention to, or i daresay analyze, the words.
The verses are mostly like scene-setting vignettes, the first merely directing the listener to the vague features of a room: "Look up on the wall, there on the floor, under the pillow, behind the door." The intense tone of the singer doesn't merely point out these features, but suggests the possibility of something interesting to be found in the room. The vagueness leaves questions as to what, and gives the verse a mysterious quality. The second verse adds fragmented details, seemingly of a complicated relationship: "If you're wrapping up the world, cause you've taken someone else's girl. When they turn on the pillow, even when they answer the telephone...Do you think they'll find out?" It's unclear again exactly what is being sought, who "they" are, and what might be found out. Most of this verse is made up of conditional statements, and are incomplete thoughts, as well, which could be seen as a meta-commentary on identity (i.e. the lack of it). The last line is a question, and it is unclear who is asking, and who is being asked.
The third verse seems to comment on what it is all supposed to mean. "It's an illusion, it's a game, a reflection of someone else's name." This negates the previous vague details from the first two, a story that is not fully told to begin with, and it also comments on the meaninglessness of the title. Abacab seems to be the answer in the chorus (which we'll get to), yet this verse then leads to a final statement in the form of an extended metaphor: "when you wake in the morning, wake and find you're covered in cellophane, well, there's a hole in there somewhere." The earlier reference to "wrapping up the world," is seemingly re-iterated, and it sounds dire, like the relationship (or perhaps break-up) feels suffocating.
The chorus contains perhaps the clearest clue to the themes, with the line, "When they do it, you're never there." The entire album, in fact, is replete with lines like this, statements that negate the existence of something, or someone. The word "abacab" is then stated as if it were the answer to a seeming riddle, and yet, it is a meaningless word, without context, at least unless you know the story of the title. In interviews, the band revealed that the title came from the original song structure, at the time merely being a working title, the parts of the song had repeated in the form, A-B-A-C-A-B. Interestingly, though, once the completed musical track had been developed, it no longer had that structure, and the lyric seems to be, partly, a way of using that fact as a metaphor for some kind of failed relationship. The lyric ending of each chorus, "Abacab isn't anywhere, Abacab doesn't really care," offers an oblique explanation for the rest of the text, but as a metaphor it works as if it was a rational answer: the relationship doesn't exist anymore.
It's quite brilliant for a pop song lyric to work on this level: telling a story, albeit with fragmented details, and then both commenting on and enriching the story with the use of metaphor. And further, it's equally brilliant that the song's title is a reference to a previous version of the song, one that also no longer exists. The ill-defined relationship is gone, too: identity and loss figure heavily as the answer to the riddle.
One of the album's biggest hits, among several, was the second track, the horn-driven, very danceable, No Reply At All. With just the title of this one, it's easy to see the themes playing a role. Once again, the lyric is a vignette of a relationship, but here metaphor isn't much needed, as the lyric merely balances on a scheme of postulating a sort of sign of existence, and then negating it. As the narrator works through a list of verbs (talk, look, dance, be, listen), they are attributed to the function of the relationship, and then immediately negated, seemingly relegated to the past. The tenses of each verse is significant, the first line a command followed by a negation, the second and third lines tentative statements focused on the narrator's subjective perception, and the last line another negation, using the tag line, "there's no reply at all." Interestingly, the last line is another definitive statement, as in the first line (not tentative), but it contains the negative sentiment. The narrator is an active agent, a subjective protagonist, but has no objective antagonist, in this case a romantic partner, to validate his existence: identity and loss.
One of the more progressive tracks on Abacab is Me And Sarah Jane, a song that takes a lot of musical twists and turns, not unlike the British science fiction television series that inspired it. Well, perhaps "inspired" is presumptuous, as the lyric doesn't seem on the surface to have any obvious connections to Dr. Who, but it also doesn't not fit. It's ostensibly a love song, but then it could be the love of friends going through a lot together, for instance, time travel. It could well be that the writer(s) meant to keep the sentiments a bit vague, to ensure that interpretations could be open. Regardless, there are certainly lines that support the main themes ("I invent a name; Searching for a clue, traces in the sand; Words lost in the wind," among others). The song is a remembrance of a prior relationship, and the title, at least, suggests a reference to that show focusing on the word "who." The themes are there in both textual and meta-textual forms. One could argue that this reading goes too far, but there are other such references on this album to words that question identity. Using the word "who" as a meta-textual trope is actually very clever. At any rate, identity and loss are undoubtedly present in this song.
The side one closer (i bought it first as a vinyl release), Keep It Dark, is a slow rocker with a repetitive guitar figure that seems to be present through the entire song. It is a perfect blend of progressive and pop styles, hooky, but still a bit edgy, too. Lyrically, it is far more narrative than most of the album's songs, and yet there is still an eerie detachment within the narrative. It seems to concern a man who has reunited with his family after having been abducted by aliens, or at least thinking that he had been. He wants to tell them all about the wondrous, and probably frightening, experiences he had, but presumably he knows that they would have difficulty believing it all. Instead, he tells the authorities, and then his family, that he was robbed by thieves. The ideas of loss and identity are all over this work, in the subjective isolation, the lie (about robbery, no less), and the fact that his experiences now stand as a barrier to the life he had with his family, or anyone else, before.
Side two kicks off with another longer track, arguably the most progressive rock sounding song in the set, called Dodo/Lurker. This lyric concerns the plight of existence, the fight for survival of one's entire species, so we're thick in the theme of loss with this one. But the identity theme figures here, as well. What is more lacking identity now than an entire species that once existed, but is completely gone?
Before the instrumental break leading to the song's conclusion, the narrator says, "Meanwhile, lurking by a stone in the mud, two eyes look to see what I was, and then something spoke, and this is what it said to me." The nondescript-ness of this passage speaks to the theme of identity by juxtaposing the idea of senses, eyes yearning for identification, with a vague lack of detail. The listener never gets to know what or who the lurker is.
The last vocal section continues the theme, despite providing some additional, albeit confusing, details: "Clothes of brass, and hair of brown, seldom need to speak, don't need no wings to fly, and a heart of stone, and a fear of fire and water, who am I?" It sounds a lot like another riddle, and it ends with another instance of the word "who," yet nothing is revealed, keeping the lurker's identity a secret.
In their attempt to keep up with new wave trends, Genesis wrote a fairly quirky piece called Who Dunnit? (Phil Collins, in interviews, naively referred to it as their "punk" song). While it is, indeed, rather quirky, and definitely of it's time, it still has interesting elements, and it still contributes to the overall themes of the album. Synth-heavy, with treated drums and a punchy rhythm, the song may be understood to musically contribute to the idea of loss, by making many Genesis fans wonder where the band they used to know had gone. Of course, there is little chance that this was an intended characteristic of the album.
Lyrically, Who Dunnit begins with a series of binary questions: "Was it you or was it me, or was it he or she, was it A or was it B, or was it X or Z?" As if the theme of identity was not covered enough by the questions alone, the next section is a denial, the narrator singing with a kind of suspiciously guilty, stuttering voice: "I didn't do it, I didn't do it." A third vocal section then changes character again, and posits, "We know, we know, we know...," and this is carried out in repetition quite long until, seemingly tired, the singer finally changes his mind, or in any case, must admit, "We don't know who did it." The effect is quite interesting, a confusing cycle, almost like an intense, crazy conversation, if one can get past the new wave pastiche of the whole thing. My personal enjoyment was heightened once I realized that the themes of loss and identity imbue the entire album so completely. Who Dunnit stands as one of the most blatant contributions to the themes, and oddly, I found that that forgave any negative opinions I previously had about the track.
The three remaining songs are all about feelings of loneliness and longing, both of which feed the main themes of loss and identity. Deeper than average pop songs, though, the lyrics all delve into each subject with repetitions of certain ideas: lack of knowledge (not knowing), waiting (time passing), losing, and pleading.
Man On The Corner is a slow, soft ballad-styled song that delivers these many ideas with a similar vague detachment to the title track, almost making the entire song a plea for someone to help, not just a particular man, but any person in his position. The second verse seems to match the kind of posit/negate scheme that earlier songs used: "Looking everywhere at no one, he sees everything or nothing at all, when he shouts nobody listens, where he leads no one will go." This is a lot of bleakness in a pop song that reached very high on the music sales charts. It seems that our protagonist can do nothing but wait "for something to show," as the last line announces. The man in the song is the "everyman," a person of no specification, a person not named, a person who has no identity, a person who has lost, seemingly, everything.
Like It Or Not is a mid-tempo rock song that was likely written during the band's previous album, Duke (the line, "you're just another face that I once used to know," seems to have been lifted, so to speak, from a song on Duke), or at least written just after that album. The lyric for Like It Or Not begins with a return, the attempt to patch up a previously broken relationship. It's a fitting song for near the end of the Abacab album, because most of the record before this is about failed relationships, complete with the feelings of loss and the struggling to find one's identity that can accompany such events. This song, however, does nothing to show the healing of these struggles, but once again sets the listener up for a negation. The song's language is also about the longing for healing, but the payoff never comes. Despite the narrator's pleas, as in the line, "If there is still a chance to hold on to our love," the wish remains unfulfilled.
As in previous songs on the album, there are lines about absence: "...you're not anywhere. You're just another face I used to know; ...I gave you everything, but what have I got to show?" The end features a repetition of the line, "It's been a long, been a long, long time, since I held anybody, since I loved anyone." This song, like Man On The Corner, hits the ideas of knowing, waiting, pleading, and losing, and cements the main themes with a kind of plaintive wail.
Another Record, the last song on Abacab, tries to soften the mood a bit with humor, but nonetheless it still contributes significantly to the ideas of loss and identity. The lyric concerns another "everyman" kind of character, the singer laying out a plea for someone to help him, to "put another record on, cause he likes that song." It is as if the dejected, lovelorn man from the last song is now on the street, and someone in the know is telling his story. The language in this song doesn't reflect the themes as much directly as the others, but there are familiar sentiments expressed. The question, "Did he think about changing his name," recalls the focus on titles and names from earlier songs, as well as on questions, and, "I'm gonna tell him it's the same old game," suggests that the game spoken of in the song, Abacab, is still being played. Finally, "everyone I know looks the other way," works as a nod to the idea of not being seen, in this case an uncomfortable, willful exercise on the part of a public who are probably just too busy to care.
I remember my first listen to Abacab left me slightly disappointed. Like so many other Genesis fans of the early 1980s, I wanted to hear more albums like Wind And Wuthering. I simply had not had my fill of that huge, swathing sound, the rhythm changes, the intricate chord structures and melodies, with lyrics about far away lands. Abacab was a jolt to that, but I did, in fact, like the songs right away. It did not take long until I had the entire album stuck in my head, and just as with other of their records I had experienced, I played it often, and still do. The extra dimension of understanding how and why the songs on Abacab fit together so well gave me a greater respect for the album, and a fuller enjoyment with every listen.
By Todd Osborn 2018