I got a bunch of e-mails last time, hailing me for trashing Peter Gabriel, and I had to laugh. I felt like reminding people that I haven’t officially trashed the man yet. That’s this week.
Up is Gabriel’s first “real” new album in 10 years. To put that into perspective, Gabriel was the lead singer of Genesis for only seven years, and some folks still consider that an era. During that time, he made six studio albums with the band, one of them, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a double record that’s still hailed as a progressive rock classic today. He started his solo career in 1977, and within 10 years he had crafted five studio albums, a live record and an ambient soundtrack to Alan Parker’s Birdy.
The last of those albums you may be familiar with. So gave Gabriel his biggest chart success to date, and sported three huge, giant, almost unbelievably popular hits: “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time” and the classic “In Your Eyes.” Problem is, if you stack So next to any one of his four self-titled albums, it falls painfully short. In general, with massive popularity comes reduced creative drive, and Gabriel certainly seemed to succumb to that.
It took Gabriel six years to create So‘s follow-up, the halfway successful Us. It then took another 10 to bring us Up. In between, granted, he’s released three side projects that rank with the best work he’s ever done, including the amazing Passion, his soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Still, five releases in 16 years is pretty slim, especially considering the rapid-fire output of his first 17.
All by itself, that wouldn’t be much of an issue, but when you take a long, hard look at the relative quality of those last three “real” albums, it’s pretty disappointing. Gabriel is one of the few working musicians for whom the tag “genius” isn’t an exaggeration. His solo career has found him embracing musics from around the globe, and incorporating them much more successfully than his contemporaries, like Paul Simon. Passion, all by itself, is a world-spanning kick in the head to cultural and artistic segregation, a whirlwind of African percussion and techno-tribal hybrids that comes off as a new creation rather than a fusion.
And three years later, his weakest work to date, Us, splattered those influences over simplistic pop and pseudo-soul like a Jackson Pollock painting. Some of it worked – the lovely “Blood of Eden,” for example, and the mood-altering “Fourteen Black Paintings.” Most of it, however, tried to squeeze too much sound onto thin skeletons. “Come Talk to Me” is a mess, and “Kiss That Frog” is an embarrassment, a cancerous boil on his discography that should have been lanced.
And now, Up. I’m going to admit something here that you’ll hardly ever hear me say: I’m torn on this album. It’s certainly his most artistically rewarding “real” album in 20 years, which actually says more about his recent output than this disc. It’s a slowly unfolding collection of moods and melodies, at least in its first half, and is certainly a risky release, especially after a 10-year gestation period. If you’re looking for the crowd-pleasing pop of his last two albums, it’s almost entirely absent, which is a good thing.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot left that sticks in the memory. Sonically, this is an amazing disc – you probably won’t hear a more perfectly produced and mixed album this year. (The mixing process by itself took a whole year.) Opener “Darkness” starts off with a holy-shit moment that recalls Prodigy and their ilk, but slowly degenerates into tuneless piano moping, setting the dismally slow pace for the rest of the album. Only three tracks have what could be described as a beat, and by the fifth seven-minute dirge, it becomes clear that the album’s title is ironic. There’s very little up about Up.
Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but Gabriel forgot to write any truly compelling songs here. Like so many albums these days, it feels like Gabriel concentrated most of his efforts on the sound and didn’t save much for the substance of his work. Only one song here is less than six minutes long, and most of them can’t sustain their length. Only “I Grieve,” which was previously released on the City of Angels soundtrack in 1997, takes you somewhere from minute two to minute six, and even that one doesn’t rank with his best.
“Growing Up,” for example, introduces a throbbing techno beat to longtime drummer Manu Katche’s meticulous percussion, but then repeats ad nauseum. It’s catchy, but not very inventive. Likewise, “No Way Out” gets by on one superb melodic shift that plays a few times, but otherwise meanders pleasantly with no destination in mind. Even “Sky Blue,” a standout highlight that builds upon a track from Gabriel’s Long Walk Home soundtrack from earlier this year, repeats its celestial melody a few times too often.
I’m not sure what fans of “Sledgehammer” are going to make of tracks like “My Head Sounds Like That,” with its brass choir and pained falsetto vocals, and “Signal to Noise,” which sets a sweeping string section to a thudding funeral beat, a warbling Nusrat Fateh Ali-Khan, and almost no melody at all. These are perhaps the most disappointing numbers, ones on which you can feel Gabriel stretching out, aiming for new sounds and stopping short of actually nailing them. “Signal to Noise,” especially, is confounding – I’m not entirely certain what Gabriel was going for, but it’s pretty obvious by the finished product that he didn’t quite make it.
And then there’s “The Barry Williams Show,” the first single. It’s rumored that Gabriel wrote 150 songs for this project, and I have a hard time believing that 140 of them were less worthy of inclusion than this pile of feces. In an uninspiring seven minutes that rival “Kiss That Frog” in the Gabriel Hall of Shame, he prattles on and on about the evils of TV talk shows, blithely oblivious to the fact that it’s an easy target that’s been shot to pieces long before this. Even Weird Al Yankovic has covered this territory before. Gabriel’s lyrics on just about all of Up are thin and surface-level, and it makes me nostalgic for his Genesis days, when no one had any clue what the hell he was singing about, but damn, it sounded cool.
What’s especially maddening about Up is that Gabriel has, just recently, given us not one, but two compelling arguments that he hasn’t lost his touch. Ovo, a soundtrack to a show at London’s Millennium Dome that was released across the pond in 2000, is several degrees better than Up, and makes a more convincing case for one world music than anything else he’s done since Passion. Long Walk Home, likewise, is an invigorating and intelligent score to Philip Noyce’s The Rabbit-Proof Fence, and is oddly more melodic than this mainstream release.
So yeah, Up is disappointing, and yet I can’t quite bring myself to dismiss it. I have the nagging feeling that I’m going to end up coming to terms with this album in the next few months, and may have to post a second review. For now, though, I can’t quite understand why Up took 10 years to put together. While better than a lot of his more recent material, it’s not nearly the masterpiece we deserved after a decade of secretive work. It’s tempting to say that Gabriel is better than this, and if not for Ovo, I’d be wondering if, in fact, he is anymore.
One good thing – if ever I’m feeling low about my own lack of accomplishment in the last 10 years, I know I can listen to this and feel a lot better…
The longer columns are still in the works – finding the time has been difficult lately, but trust me, thousands and thousands of words are coming your way soon. Before I go, I need to get in an early word of recommendation for the new Beck, Sea Change, which I’ll review in depth next time. For once, a Beck album lives up to the hype.
See you in line Tuesday morning.