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Phil Collins is topping the charts with Going Back

Phil Collins, photo by John MahoneyPhil Collins doesn't need to bother with a lot of things anymore.

He doesn't have to revisit the sordid details of his three failed marriages -divorces that cost him $80 million in alimony.

He doesn't have to take flack for the time he sued a couple of ex-bandmates to get back $800,000 in "overpaid" royalties.

He doesn't have to feel weird about his hobbies: building model train sets and assembling the world's largest collection of Alamo memorabilia.

Most of all, he doesn't need to make any more records.

Why should he? In his long career, first with the British progressive rock group Genesis, then as a solo artist, the 59-year-old musician has sold more than 200 million albums.

Six years ago, Collins said he'd never make another record. His last, Testify, was in 2002.

Well, take a look at him now. Against all odds, Collins is back.

After nearly disappearing off the pop radar screen for the better part of a decade, he's topping the charts with a new album.

No. 1 in his native Britain and released here this week, Going Back is a collection of 18 songs -bumped up to 29 on the limited-edition CD/DVD set -from the golden era of Motown and 1960s soul.

Covering classics like Papa Was a Rolling Stone, Jimmy Mack and Going to a Go-Go, Collins is backed by strings, horns and a who's-who of session musicians, some of whom were on the original recordings.

Despite a neurological condition that has left the fingertips of his left hand so numb he can play only with the drumstick taped to his hand, Collins plays on every track.

He drums, he sings, he wrote the liner notes. It's his party - half a homage to the music he listened to as a teenager, half a vanity project to show he has still got the chops.

So what if the tunes are more than 40 years old? Collins reveres them.

In fact, he went to great lengths -first in home demos, then in live recording sessions with the musicians -to recreate the exact sound of the originals, almost to the point of imitation.

"In a way, the album is a selfish trip, because I didn't bring anything new to the songs," Collins said Thursday in Montreal to promote the album.

"It's like George Harrison and Life of Brian," Collins explained, referring to the Monty Python comedy movie the ex-Beatle produced in 1979.

"He paid for that because he wanted to see the film. I paid for this record because I wanted to sing the songs."

Collins has been down the soul route before. There was You Can't Hurry Love, his 1982 hit. And if you give a close listen to some early Genesis, "you'll hear a soul drummer trying to get out," he said.

On this album, "I was trying to imitate the three main drummers that Motown used. I was kind of a chameleon, pretending to be somebody else."

The keening, reedy singing is unmistakably his, however. He's no Stevie Wonder, but no matter.

"The feedback I've got from different people is that vocally it's a very strong record. And that may be because I'm singing other people's songs," he said. "The heat is off (me) because they're all great songs ... They've stood the test of time."

His hope? That "when you put the record on, you kind of almost think you've got the wrong record -and then my voice comes in and you think, 'Oh, no, this is a Phil Collins record.' "

As a tribute album to the soul music of his youth, Going Back is not exactly a novel idea. Rod Stewart beat Collins to the punch last year with his album Soulbook.

But the alternative to doing covers would have been to not work on any music at all, the veteran musician said. What little material he has written lately is "pretty miserable," he added. "I avoid my studio like the plague."

The new record was his manager's idea. "He thinks I should be busy all the time. He said -to get my juices flowing, he hoped -'Why don't you do that album of Motown covers you've always been talking about?'

"And I thought, 'That would be fun.'"

He has no intention of touring it, however. Since completing the last Genesis reunion tour (minus Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett) in 2007, the idea of live shows leaves him cold.

"I enjoy live performance; it's not like I hate it. I just know what it does: I'm in another hotel, and I've been doing that for 40 years, pretty much ... I don't want to do it."

Collins has "another life," he said. At home near Geneva, Switzerland, "I've got two little boys (ages 5 and 9) that I desperately want to spend time with, so I'm basically stopping" music industry activities.

He has also got his hobbies. Collins is writing a book -deadline next June -on his vast collection of memorabilia from the fall of the Alamo in early 19th-century Texas.

It's another subject dear to his youth (like a lot of kids, he watched Disney's Davy Crockett on TV). "I've got cannons, rifles, swords, knives, teeth -lots of horses' teeth, one human tooth," he said.

"I can afford to buy things that are special to me. I've got Davy Crockett's bullet pouch. I've got Colonel Travis's belt, the one he was wearing when he was killed. I've got Santa Anna's buckle, as well as documents."

Until recently, he was also heavily into model trains.

"The fun was in the making of the scenery. That was the creative side of it." But his sons showed little interest, so two week ago Collins "just took it apart and boxed it up ... I needed more room for the Alamo."

As they grow older, his boys are curious about their father's musical past. "The kids sometimes want to listen to me in the car, or listen to Genesis, because they're discovering what dad did. There's a whole history of stuff that they don't even know about."

Like Collins's love affair with Montreal and his enormous fan base here.

"It's a very special town," Collins said, recalling bygone Genesis tours when "we were playing to more people here than anywhere in the States. I don't know if it was because of the European connection; it's a bit more romantic here."

Fertile ground, perhaps, to go back and sell a little soul.

"Going Back" has quickly proven a worldwide phenomenon, receiving platinum certification in Germany and gold certification in both France and the United Kingdom after little more than one week in release.

The album hit #1 in the UK this week as well as in Belgium and the Netherlands. "Going Back" has seen top 3 sales in Germany, France, Austria, and New Zealand, as well as top 5 successes in Switzerland and Italy.

© The Gazette, by Jeff Heinrich

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