Peter Gabriel: Back to Front

Peter Gabriel Live in London... So?

Peter Gabriel

Back to Front

Label: Eagle Rock
US Release Date: 2014-06-24
UK and Canada Release Date: 2014-06-23

Peter Gabriel built his reputation upon outlandish extravagances, like dressing up as a gigantic flower during concerts, and making music videos made up in whiteface, talking to a monkey. But this is what the charisma of Peter Gabriel is founded upon -- doing weird things. He isn’t a musician who’s going to wow us by overpowering us (Led Zeppelin) or by being cooler than us (The Rolling Stones) or by being crazier than us (George Clinton). He’s someone who impresses us by his musical experimentation, combining dissimilar genres of music into creative and successful expressions of artistry. This is what made his 1986 magnum opus So such an exhilarating thrill ride.

So is the album to which Back to Front owes its gestation to, as it was recorded during Gabriel’s two year world tour in support of the 25th anniversary of his landmark record. Featuring the likes of the super-hit “Sledgehammer”, the sarcastically materialistic “Big Time” and the eye opening “In Your Eyes”, So is not only Gabriel’s bestselling album, but it's also his most perfect. It’s not overly prog-rock because he was more comfortable with making a pop album by this point, and he finally learned to reconcile the dark, brooding nature of his character with the overly spasmatic and jovially flamboyant facet of himself. With So, Gabriel infused African tribal music, and '60s soul, into pop music and art rock. Naturally, a sound like this would require a fine-tuned and extremely well-produced structure to it that would allow the songs to come to life. Ultimately, Back to Front fails because it doesn’t capture the sonic dynamics of Peter Gabriel albums and live albums in general.

I’ve always held a silent bias against live albums, primarily for the fact that they don’t really offer anything new. Being live renditions of songs we already know, I’ve always found it hard for live albums to justify their own existence. Since we already know the songs on a live album, the artist has to do something different enough to stand out from the studio versions of the songs. Back to Front fails to do that; it fails to distinguish itself from all the other times we’ve heard his hits. In short, it doesn’t do anything different or drastic enough to warrant its existence.

The highlight of the set is the novelty of Gabriel performing So from start to finish, as well as an acoustic version of a few of his older hits such as “Shock the Monkey”. Novelty alone isn’t enough to save Back to Front from redundancy, however. Classics such as “Red Rain” and “Sledgehammer” just don’t have the punch and the vividness to them that they originally did; they seem much more restrained and diluted, as if they don’t come to life as fully as they did in the studio. One of the better examples is “No Self Control”, which is transformed into a stripped-down lounge-singer version of the original. It lacks the aggression and urgency that originally made it a standout track on Peter Gabriel. “Sledgehammer”, in particular, is a very by-the-numbers live rendition, except that unlike the original version, it doesn’t make me want to get up and dance.

But then again, Back to Front is a very generic, by-the-numbers kind of live album. It’s quite literally, Peter Gabriel playing his songs live on stage; there is no extra flair to it, like KISS’s Alive, or the unbridled explosiveness that could be found in the Who’s Live at Leeds. It’s not a bad album, as the songs that he plays are enjoyable and great songs, but because the live performances of these songs lack charisma and vitality, it begs the question: was a live album really necessary?

The album fails to really grasp the extravagance and manic-depressive nature of Gabriel’s music, as well as his quirky charisma with which he used to initially carve out his following. But, the fact remains that the only people who will care about Back to Front are Peter Gabriel fans, as it won’t bring in any new fans by itself. The generic nature of the performance doesn’t do So justice because the performance is the most straightforward and basic that it could possibly be. The purpose of a live album shouldn’t be to merely go through the motions -- it should offer excitement and a new dynamic that isn’t found on the original album. Between Back to Front and its source material, the original proves to be the superior. Ultimately, this is a bland live album, one that fails to fully captivate and inspire, which is a rarity for Peter Gabriel.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.