The shock of Hard Times for Lovers is that it’s as pathetically awful as that televised disaster. Listening to it is like watching a once-decent pitcher try to come back after a failed arm operation: all he’s got is desire, and desire is so inadequate to the task that you turn away in shame, hoping his agony will be brief, and final.
All the worse, then, that Hard Times for Lovers (catchy “It’s Okay to Be a Sex Object Again!” nude photos on the cover to boot) is being heralded as a “new direction” for the former folk/art singer: a grand embrace of mainstream elegance presented under the hokey rubric of “Classical American Music.” What this means is schlock by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (theme from The Promise, a schlock weeper), Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager (theme from Ice Castles, a weepier schlocker) and Stephen Sondheim. There is also Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” plus less well-known corn from Hugh Prestwood (“Hard Times for Lovers,” “Dorothy”) and token rock-as-art from Randy Newman and the Eagles. Collins can’t sing any of it. All you hear is her discomfort: she’s working so hard to come close to the notes of the tunes—and falling so far short, flattening melodies left and right—that there’s nothing left over for phrasing, for emotion. And it’s not only that Collins’ voice has collapsed. She seems intimidated by the pretentiousness of her material: “Where or When” is a decent song, but it’s not so hot sung as a secular version of “How Great Thou Art.”
The title tune is, strictly in terms of its lyrics, a very questionable choice. A slick ballad, written by a man but supposedly from a woman’s point of view, it concerns coming of age through divorce and the false promises of going one’s own way. On the surface, it comes off as an attack on the Me Generation; just below the surface (the song doesn’t go any deeper), it’s an attack on Women’s Liberation: “For all of my holy freedom/What have I got to show?” “Oh, I don’t know,” mourns Collins. For a woman who, though never an important singer, has often demonstrated real intelligence in her selection of material, and who produced a widely seen documentary about a pioneering female conductor (Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman), this is appalling.
But it’s the singing itself that counts here, if only because its misery overwhelms everything else. It’s impossible that the people involved with this album, Collins included, didn’t recognize what a mess they had on their hands; that the record has been released at all is less a mistake than an insult to the audience.
Rolling Stone, May 31, 1979