After having given his solo career a fine start with his eponymous debut, Peter Gabriel hit what most observers judged to be a sophomore slump. Peter Gabriel shared enough in common with Genesis material to carry over some fans while changing enough to avoid being taken down with the prog-rock ship. On the second Peter Gabriel (thus titled to give the impression that his albums were like issues of a magazine), the artiste had more of a yearning for a new direction than a clear idea of what it might be or how he should get there. The first Gabriel merely coincided with the explosion of punk, but the second was created in the glow of its mushroom cloud. The impetus behind the comparatively stripped arrangements is clear enough, and the move seems as wise today as it did at the time.
Then what went wrong? The answer might lie in the 5/4 section of “D.I.Y.”, a tribute to a punk movement that disdained odd time signatures. Cute paradoxes may be of little value to anyone besides captious writers, but the question remains: was the no-nonsense approach of the late-seventies a flow that Gabriel could go with? History has to this day answered with a resounding “No”, and consigned this album to the lowest reaches of Gabriel’s pre-Big-Time era. As it reappears today in Super Audio format, the world seems just as chilly to it as it did a quarter-century ago. On the list of candidates for Exile on Main Street-style revisions, Peter Gabriel part deux sits quite low.
Spinning the album today, it’s hard not to feel that it got, and continues to get, the proverbial shaft, certainly during the first few tracks. Those songs—“On the Air”, “D.I.Y.”, and “Mother of Violence”—sound every bit like the opening salvo of a superb record. Not only are they great on their own, they also combine to state in the boldest terms that this is new and exciting direction for its author. They make “Moribund the Burgermeister” from the previous album sound, well, moribund. Such a song may have worked well at the time, but one senses that Gabriel knew full well that he couldn’t get away with such extravagance for much longer, and “On the Air” proves that he didn’t need to try. This leaner incarnation, created with the stellar assistance of producer Robert Fripp, could keep up with anything Gabriel had formerly conjured with grand symphonies and an ever-grander vision.
The problem, as many listeners have been quick to note, is that it only does so on Peter Gabriel  sporadically. None of the cuts would earn special ire in a vacuum, but it’s hard not to be a little ticked off at “Exposure” when it arrives in the third quarter. In other contexts, its sonic interest might be enough to sustain it and possibly even garner some affection, but here it’s the album’s quagmire. After his great start, Gabriel parades one song after another that all have merits aplenty, but Peter Gabriel doesn’t feel like a forest so much as an assortment of unrelated trees. One can almost hear him hopping about, taking a couple of steps in a promising direction before abandoning it for another, equally onanistic one. After seven songs, he’s four cuts removed from his aforementioned brilliant start and running out of goodwill. This is, it should be noted, not the best place for a droning, bass-drenched meander strongly reminiscent of the kind of lazy self-indulgence often produced and only enjoyed by those powerfully under the influence of drugs. Phish may be able to waste its audience’s time thusly, but Gabriel is (thankfully) not Phish.
One pertinent advantage we moderns have over the laughable primitives who received Peter Gabriel on vinyl is the skip button on our CD players, and it may be this above all else that could breathe new life into this album. Its biggest weakness may simply be poor sequencing, and if no re-programming could quite lift “Exposure” to the level of magnificence, it’s easy enough to come up with a running order that does a better job of maintaining momentum. It’s debatable that the flaws run deeper and that these songs simply don’t jell with each other, but that still leaves a fistful of overlooked jewels. Their complete absence from Gabriel’s best-of collection was a striking reminder of just how overlooked Peter Gabriel  is. It may not have had the unifying concept that Gabriel had led his fans to expect from him, but there are certainly worse crimes than this, just as there are lesser accomplishments than producing a record of solid mix-tape material
// Notes from the Road
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