Peter Gabriel is, to put it mildly, a mercurial artist. The guy who co-founded the prog-rock juggernaut Genesis when he was a teenager is now a gray-bearded elder statesman of 52, freshly emerged from a decade-long hiatus that saw him burying his immense commercial success and strongly developed pop sensibilities beneath a flurry of side projects -- developing his Real World record label, co-founding a human rights watch organization called Witness, composing music for London's Millennium Dome. After such a long retreat from the spotlight, the release of Gabriel's new album Up is causing an understandable buzz in the music world. It's not quite as highly anticipated as the second Star Wars trilogy, but close.
Amid such high expectations, it's hard to approach Up's difficult material with an open mind. What in the heck has Gabriel been up to for the last ten years? Is he still dabbling in African and Middle Eastern rhythms? Has his voice gotten even raspier? Is he writing more "Sledgehammers" or more "Blood of Edens"? Or hell, maybe he's gone back to his freak-paint Lamb Lies Down on Broadway days. With Gabriel, there's no telling.
In truth, Gabriel's been doing all of the above, which works to both his benefit and detriment. In its scope and sonic complexity, Up surpasses even the extraordinary richness of Passion, Gabriel's soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. It's the most sophisticated record he's ever made; songs like "Darkness" and "Sky Blue" really sound like they took ten years to make, breathing with dense, thoughtful instrumentation and taking more startling twists and turns than a David Mamet thriller. (The album's press notes mention that the album required "its own archaeology department", which sounds like a joke until you check the liner notes and realize that on "Sky Blue" Daniel Lanois is credited with sampling his own work on an earlier, discarded version of the track.)
The only problem with so much musical intricacy is that the songs tend to get a little lost under it -- which is too bad, because like I said earlier, for all his art-rock and world music pretensions, Gabriel is also a consummate pop craftsman. On Up, you hear this in flashes: the haunting chants from the Blind Boys of Alabama that lift "Sky Blue" into the same pop-gospel terrain occupied by "Don't Give Up" off Gabriel's masterpiece, 1986's So; the brilliantly uplifting climax to the otherwise solemn "I Grieve"; the marriage of jazz shuffle and outlaw guitar twang that opens "No Way Out". But there's not a "Sledgehammer" or even a "Digging in the Dirt" to be found on Up. Clocking in at an average of around seven minutes, and featuring layer upon layer of percussion, keyboards, and electronic embellishment, Gabriel's compositions here are not songs as much as they are musical meditations, mini-symphonies that evolve more thematically than through any kind of conventional song structure. It's challenging stuff, and often brilliant, but it's sometimes hard to tell whether Gabriel has deliberately abandoned songcraft or just forgotten how to do it.
Evidence for the latter explanation comes with "The Barry Williams Show", Up's one moment of embarrassment. Obviously trying to reconjure the marriage of social satire and funk-rock catchiness that worked so well on "Big Time", Gabriel gives us a hopelessly yesterday's-news portrait of an unscrupulous daytime talk show host, with quaintly old-fashioned synth horns and a big goofy chorus that tries to be rousing but only succeeds in being vapid. The fact that Gabriel's chosen this track as the album's first single does not bode well for the state of his pop instincts -- unless Geffen forced him into it.
Elsewhere, Gabriel's gifts are abundantly in evidence, even if they don't always make for a pretty listen. Despite its title, Up is by far the mercurial Englishman's darkest album since the final part of his untitled trilogy, the 1980 release commonly known as Melt. Again and again the lyrics return to themes of loss, grieving, and death, and many of the arrangements display a harshness he hasn't employed since tracks like Melt's "Intruder" and "No Self-Control". The album's opener, "Darkness", attacks the listener with techno-industrial shrieks and an almost Zeppelin-like, stomping backbeat. The deceptively pretty "My Head Sounds Like That" crescendos into a similarly brutal bridge, while the melodramatic "Signal to Noise" is punctuated by the disturbingly manic chants of the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who died in 1997, to give you an idea of how long this album's been kicking around in Gabriel's studio).
Such touches combined with the record's generally ponderous feel don't make Up easy to love. The only track that's immediately appealing is "Growing Up", a tune that literally progresses from images of birth to death (Gabriel describes Up as a "bookend" album, "looking more at the beginning and the end of life than at the middle"), all the while brilliantly melding Gabriel's dark sensibilities and love of African beats with an infectious dance groove. Elsewhere, Up's sheer sonic density rewards repeat listenings, as tracks that seemed lifeless the first time around next to the hip-shaking energy of "Growing Up" reveal their quieter charms. "Sky Blue", the only track to feature the work of So and Us co-producer Daniel Lanois, is especially beautiful, a soulful ballad that showcases longtime Gabriel collaborator Tony Levin's subcutaneous basslines and the aforementioned harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama. Longtime fans will undoubtedly swoon over "No Way Out", a vintage Gabriel track that finds him at his most vocally plaintive over simple piano chords and his trademark atmospheric African percussion, while "I Grieve", a track resuscitated off the 1998 City of Angels soundtrack, shows off his talent for mixing pathos and uplifting spirituality.
But the album's most affecting moment comes on "My Head Sounds Like That", a classic slow-burn Gabriel track that features both the album's most intriguing lyrics and its most hypnotic melody. Over simple piano chords and slowly building, faintly off-key horns, brilliantly played by the Black Dyke Band, Gabriel sings from the viewpoint of someone whose heightened sensitivity to sound contrasts with his inability to remember the past. What makes the track so indelible is its relative economy; unlike the rest of Up, "My Head Sounds Like That" unfolds with an airiness and sparseness that trusts Gabriel's emotive singing and oblique, evocative lyrics ("The knife, it scrapes across the burnt brown toast/A freight train rumbles past my window") to make the impact.
Up doesn't quite measure up to past masterworks like So and Melt; nor, for all its sonic depth, does it really break any new ground -- Gabriel's signature sound really hasn't changed much since the early '80s, though that hardly matters since most other mainstream musicians are still trying to catch up to him. But I think the years will be kind to Up; though it falls short of greatness, it's still the work of a more mature, meticulous artist who has doggedly stayed true to a very idiosyncratic vision. While most recording artists his age are embarking on cynical reunion tours or churning out watered-down rehashes of past glories, Peter Gabriel continues to challenge himself and his fans to push popular music beyond its borders. For that, you ought to give Up a chance, no matter how prickly it may sound at first shine.