Since Peter Gabriel‘s most recent, decade-in-the-making album, Up,made such a modest splash, he seems like an odd choice for a lavish remastering campaign that includes Super Audio CDs, but because he still has such an air of a missed opportunity about him, he may deserve such an effort anyway. After all, he made his best music in relative obscurity, only knocking at the door of mainstream success with “Solsbury Hill” from his first album and “Biko” from his third. With his fourth, however, the stakes rose with the Top Forty hit, “Shock the Monkey”. Everything was set for a big commercial breakthrough, and though it eventually came with 1986’s So, it should have struck the trenchant observer that four years is an excessive amount of time to wait before striking a hot iron. This astute person should have also seen that So was, despite its terrific singles, a step backwards for Gabriel.
It was only moderately surprising to see someone who had approached the limelight so tentatively sabotage his chances for staying there. After taking six years to deliver a follow-up (an interminable delay by industry standards), Gabriel dropped Us on the world, a record severely lacking in radio anthems to say the least. By this point, most of the college kids who had waved their lighters to “In Your Eyes” had moved on to Yanni or Hootie or whoever ex-Peter Gabriel fans listen to, so the only ones left were those who had been paying attention from the start, or those smart enough to pick up the stellar back catalogue when “Sledgehammer” caught their ear. This elite crowd could’ve been forgiven for feeling like Us was a chore rather than a treat, although it’s a safe guess that few among that group would ever admit to it. With its crawling tempos and unapologetic introversion, this extended rumination on Gabriel’s divorce might have been dismissed as solipsistic if it hadn’t been for the presence of—gasp!—world beat. History has shown that having some non-Western influences floating around in the stew shames earnest liberals into a state of critical paralysis (if they don’t attack the subject for cultural misappropriation), and while this may be a regrettable state of affairs, it just might have provided enough of a window for Us to receive the credit it deserves.
But deserving credit is not the same thing as being great. Us is a tired, old man album, through and through. Gabriel expresses little but quiet pain, a throbbing regret that overwhelms the record. On a few tracks, “Steam” and “Kiss That Frog”, he breaks out of his rut and injects some measurable energy into the proceedings, but they’re only qualified successes. Are they fun? Sure. Do they belong? Not at all. They serve as changes of pace; perhaps badly needed ones, but changing the pace at the expense of thematic unity is frequently an ill-advised gambit. Here, it’s a necessary evil, surrounded as it is by such fatigued material. It’s quite easy to wish that Gabriel had combined his impulses rather than segregating them into unsmiling substance and energetic fluff.
“Secret World” and “Digging in the Dirt”, on the other hand, prove that he knew how to take the best of both. The former, with its repeated chant of “What was it we were thinking of?”, cuts to the heart of rifts between couples, ones so layered with small arguments and concealed resentments that it leaves nothing but a feeling at once inexplicable and strong enough to break marriages apart. That feeling is given even more overt expression in “Digging in the Dirt”, the one moment on Us where real anger bubbles to the surface. The memorable mantra on this cut is “This time you’ve gone too far” repeated three times, followed by “I told you” four times. Elsewhere, he gets into more detail, but these lines combined with the chorus capture the sensation of being in the hands of someone capable of healing or hurting at her whim. It’s an admirable achievement lyrically, but that’s hardly the point. The lyrics are heartfelt and moving throughout, but these two tracks have great beats and some visceral punch to complement their oblique observations. When Gabriel gets it right like he does here, few can match him. It’s just a shame for us (and Us) that he doesn’t do it more often.