According to legend, Peter Gabriel went to see a Bruce Springsteen concert towards the end of his tenure in Genesis and suddenly realized that he had to leave the band. It’s a good story, certainly, but it was an even better idea. The prog rock ship was already taking on water when it was finally torpedoed by the Ramones, but by then Gabriel had already gotten his solo career underway. And though pop culture’s memory of 1977 will forever be dominated by visions of Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, Gabriel started his own understated revolution in the same year, one that may not have set the music world alight in quite the same way as the celebrated punks, but an admirable one nonetheless.
The first of three eponymous albums (four if you count the album known in America as Security), Peter Gabriel was the product of a man looking to make an all-encompassing statement right out of the gate. As such, it limns his weaknesses as well as it does his talents. Though both the simplicity and lyrical content of “Solsbury Hill” would lead listeners to believe that Gabriel had permanently turned his back on the turgid excess of prog in general and Genesis in particular, the rest of the album does little to support such a conclusion. He is, at many points throughout Peter Gabriel, wildly excessive, dropping whole orchestras into his songs as casually as Kurt Cobain might use a “C” chord. His stylistic jumps on tracks like “Excuse Me” are noticeable enough, but nothing in Gabriel’s catalogue brazenly pole vaults over the top quite like “Moribund the Burgermeister”, which he had the chutzpah to have open his solo debut. Alternating between verses working in small-scale and choruses which lend new meaning to the term “grandiose”, “Moribund” makes no apology for either its size or its sheer wackiness.
It is perhaps that lack of apology that makes “Moribund the Burgermeister” such a giddy thrill—that, or maybe Gabriel’s infectious creativity. Truth be told, he’s one of the few artists in pop music capable of getting away with as much as he does. Descriptions of his songs can land him right next to some of the most reviled figures in rock: Emerson, Lake, Palmer, etc. His anthemic bent, embodied here by the closer, “Here Comes the Flood”, seems to go out of fashion every time a generation of pop fans turns twenty. Still, it all seems to matter surprisingly little whenever a really good Gabriel record is playing, and Peter Gabriel manages to count as one.
Like the first Roxy Music album, Peter Gabriel is pulling in a hundred different directions at once and leaving giant messes in the wake of its schizoid journey, but it’s precisely that unpredictability that makes both records so invigorating. Both sound as if they’re positively bursting out of restraints, and if some restraints are better left in place, the feeling of wrecking them all in one youthful swoop is nothing less than contagious. Sure, Gabriel would get more focused and even better in later years, but not much that came after his debut had quite the same spirit. In the final tally, it’s better to have eventually moved on from this stage, but giving it the deluxe Super Audio CD treatment today doesn’t seem at all ridiculous. Hearing the detail of “Solsbury Hill” with unprecedented clarity is a treat, but so is simply revisiting an underrated chapter of a great songwriter’s history. His intense concentration would yield him greater rewards almost a decade later, but it would also sink him into sonic tedium in his worst moments to come. After hearing, say, Us, this album seems to explode out of the speakers. Their ultimate refinement may have been a few years off, but the spontaneity, the daring, and the unadulterated exuberance that lay within Peter Gabriel are exciting enough to thrill even in their crudest form.
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