There’s just something about this song.
Phil Collins often gets dismissed as creator of shallow, inoffensive Pop music. While that isn’t entirely false, it isn’t entirely true, either. Yes, his music is for the most part easy to listen to, accessible, middle of the road. But that doesn’t make it devoid of emotion and meaning. “In the Air Tonight” is probably the best example of this.
I believe it was the first single from Collins’ first solo album, Face Value, in 1981. It is a dark, meditative song with cryptic lyrics and an insistent, throbbing beat. The tense music and production are perfect. There’s not an extraneous note here; it is taut and spare and absolutely haunting. Although the emotions are quite obvious, the lyrics don’t really give much away, and that’s one of the things I like most about it. You’re not entirely sure what the man in the song is referring to; the narrative is deliberately murky. All you really know is he can feel something coming down, and it’s not good.
When I was younger, I heard rumors that it was about a murder Collins witnessed as a child/teenager, but that’s been thoroughly disproven. It is about his divorce from his first wife and the anger he felt toward her. That meaning seems more obvious once you hear it, but there’s still plenty of room for the audience to put their own spin on it.
I always thought this song really came into its own when it was used in the first episode of Miami Vice. It’s an oppressive song, like the humidity in Florida, and Michael Mann employed it perfectly. Although Miami Vice didn’t age too well (it really looks dated now), the song is unscathed by time. Phil Collins made catchy, hook-filled music, but that doesn’t mean the hooks weren’t painfully barbed.