I don’t know if “Against All Odds” is the best Phil Collins song. I suspect it is. But it’s certainly the most Phil Collins song, the complete conjunction of things you might associate with Phil Collins: song-shifting drum breakdowns, male pattern agony, everybloke blues. It’s also a song that attracts covers: writing about one of them on NYLPM, I said: “The ur-version of “Against All Odds” will always be by a drunk divorced man in a suburban karaoke, singing his desperate heart away – Phil’s original is just a guide vocal.”
The song gets its power from its poker-game tension between lyric and arrangement. As the words get more hopeless, the music raises its stake in the other direction, increasing the defiance and bombast. The worse this guy’s prospects look, the more the music is telling us he might still have a chance. Fights against all odds are what heroes do, right? So you could imagine “Against All Odds” done without the drum breakdown, and without its singer going all-in at the end – in fact it might be interesting – but that isn’t the route Collins takes, and Mariah Carey follows him closely. Her cover is of a piece with her “Without You”: a power ballad classic faithfully rendered, with a shot of vocal rocket-fuel.
It’s striking, in fact, how little Mariah re-interprets the song: most of the major decisions that sound like they might be hers – the ever-extending melisma on each “now”, her pushing her voice to the point of cracking on the very final chorus, that last drawn-out “take”, and the rather deflationary, resigned ending – are there when Phil Collins sings it. He’s not the powerhouse she is, and he ends up sounding angry where she sounds steely – but hers is a strong, if conservative, version of a fine song.
If only I was writing about it. I sort of am, of course – this collaboration is actually more of a remix, with Mariah Carey’s vocal line edited down and Westlife drafted to fill in the gaps that leaves. They were the bigger UK stars, kicking off the promotion for their second album, and they get to start the record off – but the sleeve doesn’t lie. They are the guest act here. And what a wretched job of it they do.
It’s hard to see how arranging “Against All Odds” as a duet would help it in any circumstances – a song about abjecting yourself for an absent lover doesn’t really need anyone joining in. Let alone these five feckless sods: it’s a big song, but not that big. On the early verses it doesn’t matter too much – the singing is on the oafish side, but they’re not trying to have Mariah’s or Westlife’s bits communicate, so I can’t really fault that they don’t. And the song keeps Mariah’s best moment intact – her sad, soft reading of the first chorus. But when Westlife are drafted in as backing vocals on the final choruses, toes are very much being trodden on. Westlife footle around the edges of Carey’s delivery (”Taaaake…a…loook….”), unwisely try and take her on (”STANDING HERE!”), and settle in the end for just leeching any remaining drama from her vocals (”Chance I gotta take…gotta take”). Making the ending even smarmier – and throwing on one of those ubiquitous glimmering keyboard effects – is just a bonus.
Mariah – or her record company – are just as culpable here: she wanted a hit, this was the path to one. For Westlife, it telegraphed two things: they were big enough to share billing, if not studio time, with a global megastar. And their second album would, if anything, be more conservative than their first. Nobody involved with “Against All Odds” was taking any chances. Except with quality.