Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ray Wilson doesn't seem like much of a rock star or a political commentator. But after hearing "These Are the Changes," the first song on Wilson's latest album The Next Best Thing, Sea of Tranquility senior editor Michael Popke thinks he may be both.
During that song, Wilson - whose name may sound familiar, thanks to a short-lived stint as Phil Collins' replacement in Genesis for 1997's Calling All Stations - intersperses the repetitive, hypnotic refrain of "These are the changes the day brings us" with sound bites from President George W. Bush referring to September 11, 2001; Sen. Edward Kennedy eulogizing his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in 1968; President Richard Nixon agreeing to end the Vietnam War in 1973; and President Ronald Reagan addressing the American people regarding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1987.
Originally, the song wasn't political at all, Wilson, 36, says on the telephone from his native Scotland. But that doesn't prevent the track from being any less thought-provoking. "Since 9/11 and the war in Iraq, the news has been all about George Bush," Wilson says. "In Europe, George Bush is probably the most disliked president in American history. He comes across as a dumbass. I find him quite frightening and capable of scary things. I think he's bad for America's image, even though some Americans don't care what Europeans think."
But Wilson travels a lot, watching news networks around the world that help form his political statements, and he's eager to share what he thinks. He stresses that "These Are the Changes" is a song that's more about war than Bush. "We go from war to war to war, and it's like a never-ending circle," he says. "The terrorist threat dominates our world, and I, like many others, am frustrated at how we have managed to let our world get into such a state of hatred that people ... are willing to blow themselves and others to pieces for their beliefs. There can be no justification for this, but we have to ask ourselves why this happens. Should we question the British and American government's approach to world peace? 'These Are the Changes' bears out my frustration that we never seem to learn from our mistakes. We are the people responsible for voting in our politicians, but we are also responsible for making sure they run our world the way we want it. … I feel that now is the time to be vocal about peace, as talking can go a long way to help resolve this issue."
Interestingly enough, the rest of The Next Best Thing leaves politics alone. Rather, it plays more like simply a collection of songs about Wilson's observations of the world around him. That's a far cry from 2003's Change, which was incredibly autobiographical. While the new album contains some personal perspectives and is just as melancholy in places as Change, Wilson cannot tell a lie. "I prefer Change, I really do," he says. "Maybe that's just because it's more personal. Change sounds like an album and this one doesn't. I listen to Change, and every song fits - except the bonus track. That's why I hate bonus tracks."
The Next Best Thing (with no bonus tracks, by the way) is punctuated with Wilson's smoky Peter Gabriel-meets-Don Henley-via-Bryan Adams voice. "How High," with its anxious acoustic guitar and off-kilter arrangement, is a reference to someone who doesn't fear death, and the storming rocker "Inside," which borders on alternative metal, is a portrait of a character who keeps his emotions bottled within himself. Meanwhile, the piano-and-strings ballad "Adolescent Breakdown" explores the emotional dichotomy that comes with being part of a successful rock band and the crazy politics that go with it (Wilson's pre-Genesis band, Stiltskin, was quite popular in Europe), and "The Actor" captures the insecurity Wilson experienced after the demise of Stiltskin and his failed stint in Genesis. "I felt like an actor who had lost his audience," he says. "I wanted to believe it was still there but I knew it wasn't. Imagine the actor walking out to an almost empty theatre, which his adoring audience once filled. Imagine … having to face up to the failure and start again."
The whole album was written in about six months.
Change, on the other hand, took two years to write. Each of that album's 13 mostly-acoustic tracks presents a musical vignette - a memorable, melodic and sometimes painful slice of Wilson's life that he's willing to share with the listener, friend to friend. Nearly every song on Change sounds as if it could anchor the soundtrack of a dramatic film. On both Change and The Next Best Thing, Wilson leaves listeners yearning for more, wanting to share a beer with the man in a Scottish pub or hang out on the front porch with him long after dark.
Wilson says he wrote the songs on Change after completing an acoustic tour, which resulted in 2002's stunning Live and Acoustic CD, recorded during a string of 13 (yes, 13) sold-out shows at Scotland's 2001 Edinburgh International Festival. On that album, Wilson performed songs from Calling All Stations, as well old-school Genesis, latter-period Genesis and ex-Genesis members' solo material. In contrast to Change, The Next Best Thing evolved after a tour with his band, which resulted in a not-so-subtle musical and lyrical change of direction. "People seem to like this one, though, so maybe I've done something right," Wilson says.
It's easy to forgive the man if he seems a bit self-conscious. There for awhile, Wilson was blamed for the apparent demise of Genesis, one of the world's most beloved progressive-rock bands. "I was fucked whichever way I turned," is how Wilson sums up his Genesis experience today.
Handpicked by Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford and keyboardist Tony Banks from Stiltskin, which had scored a No. 1 European single but crumbled under internal dissension, Wilson was widely considered an obscure choice among fans in the rest of the world to replace Collins -- who officially departed Genesis in 1996, 20 years after he took over lead singing duties in the wake of Gabriel's defection. Prior to the announcement about Wilson, replacement rumors ran wild, with speculation falling on everyone from Paul Carrack (Mike + The Mechanics) to Fish (ex-Marillion) to even the return of Gabriel.
When asked what he remembers most about the Genesis audition, Wilson responds quickly: It was Collins singing the "oh, oh, oh" background vocals in his headphones while performing "Land of Confusion." "To be in the studio, with all the guys looking at me, and Phil singing background vocals in my ears - that's quite strange," Wilson says, although he wasn't intimidated. "God gave me the gift of a voice, so I always felt comfortable singing. Genesis needed someone like that to step into the role, and I was very much like that. I was worried about fans liking my voice, but I know full well that I performed Genesis songs as well as anyone could have. My position is unshakable on that."
After the release of Calling All Stations -- despite the tepid response to the album (the official Genesis web site reports that sales didn't top 110,000 copies in the United States) -- Genesis launched a European tour in late 1997, but the response from fans was significantly less than that of previous tours. A tour of the States was even scrapped. Shortly after the conclusion of the European shows, Banks and Rutherford notified Wilson that they didn't intend to record another album. "There was such a backlash in America that Tony and Mike lost their confidence," Wilson claims. "If they put out another album, they feared nobody would buy it. I'd never sold any records in America, so it didn't make any difference to me."
His last gig with Genesis was at a festival in Germany, during which Wilson says he felt the band was finally starting to click. "I thought we would keep going," he admits. "But I suppose deep down somewhere in my soul, I knew it was going to end. When you're used to a certain standard of success, it's very difficult to take a step down, and I can understand why Tony and Mike got cold feet, but I don't agree with their decision. I thought they were chickening out."
Wilson floundered about after Genesis, forming the little-heard outfits Cut with drummer Nir Z (who replaced Collins behind the kit in Genesis) and Millionairehead. Now, six years after Banks and Rutherford sacked Wilson, he says he has little contact with anyone from the Genesis camp.
If given the opportunity to travel back in time to that fateful day when he was offered what at the time seemed like the gig of a lifetime, would Wilson have said "Yes" again? He offers a long, almost uncomfortable pause before answering. "I don't know," he eventually says. "I've spent so long trying to find my peace, and I'm finally enjoying what I do musically now. But I didn't really start creating music properly until after Genesis. Genesis softened my sound, and the Genesis experience helped me grow as a writer."
Indeed, even though Wilson was credited with co-writing "Not About Us," "Small Talk" and "There Must Be Some Other Way" on Calling All Stations, his post-Genesis work proves that his talent runs much deeper than Rutherford and Banks allowed him to demonstrate. On The Next Best Thing, even more so than on Change, Wilson has finally left Genesis behind.