In recent years, the mentioning of Peter Gabriel has often been accompanied by a chuckle and a joke about “Say Anything,” the Cameron Crowe movie that gave his song “In Your Eyes” so much notoriety in the late 1980s. Others think about the terrible radio-single, “Sledgehammer,” frequently aired at baseball games as a proper anthem for Barry Bonds-type sluggers.
Fewer will remember his role in Genesis, as most of its fame came after Gabriel left and Phil Collins took over as the poster boy for a Prog-rock inspired electro-pop that fit well into the synthesized groove of the 80s. So when I say that Gabriel’s new album, Up, is worth the decade-long delay since his last studio album, understand that this is the Peter Gabriel that will obliterate his archaic stereotypes. Up signals not only a new development in Gabriel’s music, but a fitting addition to the works being produced today throughout the younger generations.
Up is most certainly an album marked by darkness, shadows of old age and the reflections of a life-long career in music. After nearly 10 years of work, Gabriel decided to edit down over 100 songs to a measly 10, and though the lengthy songs suffice to complete the album, his minimalism lies in the fact that he admits very few forays into crowd-pleasing harmony. Gabriel doesn’t leave much room for songs that are sure to appease a radio-friendly audience. There’s no candy.
One song begins quietly with a sparse, tuned beat, yet shortly thereafter Gabriel crashes in with a roaring, distorted guitar-riff more piercing than musical. It is dissonant, loud, and unexpected, but he manages to balance the unsettling turbulence with moments of melodic serenity as he sings in his quiet, soothing tones. The lyrics, though, contain nothing celebratory. As he repeats, “I cry until I laugh,” we come to understand that he intends this album to be cerebral, insular and (not-so-quietly) reflective. He will not save his gravity for a later date â€“ he means to use it fiercely and without restraint.
Likewise, in “Sky Blue,” Gabriel emits an overt awareness of exhaustion through a pulsing, beautiful melody. The chorus is supported by the rich gospel sensibilities of The Blind Boys of Alabama with a haunting piano accompaniment, and Gabriel perfectly captures the sense of melancholy and desperation that comes with being “free to wander, free to roam.”
As he moves on to “No Way Out,” Gabriel has no fear in tackling perhaps the most precarious subject in rock history (even more so than love) â€“ mortality. And, like most of the other songs on Up, he is frustratingly accomplished in creating a paradox of dread and beauty. His lyrics come from a lineage of poetic directness, and while he is far from subtle, the music manages to keep the seriousness in check. It is the presence of tranquility amid chaos that elevates his music to the highest level.
Unfortunately, it is Gabriel’s persisting urgency that slightly drags the album down from the level of a masterpiece. The songs are long and determined in their scope; they’re drawn out, heady and heavily resistant to the more casual ear. “The Barry Williams Show,” a critique of voyeuristic obsessions with T.V. talk shows seems to carry the only glimmer of hope for a radio single, but it comes off as a failed attempt at current pop savvy. Gabriel wants to be the up-to-date rock star, but he ends up sounding like the 50-year-old desperately trying to be hip, only to fall victim to the manufactured artificiality of synth strings and saxophone so popular during the 80s. The levity, though, goes no further, and consequently Up resigns itself to a solemn headiness that doesn’t end until the lingering notes of “The Drop.” Gabriel chooses to end not with a bang but a whimper.
Otherwise, Gabriel has constructed a series of songs almost deadening in the profound obscurity of their beauty. “I Grieve” is a masterful reworking of the single he released on The City of Angels soundtrack, and despite the unabashedly trite chorus of “life carries on,” it is persistent and catchy. “More Than This” and “My Head Sounds Like That” also bear signs of greatness. And while Up may carry with it many remnants of his previous album, Us, Peter Gabriel has proved that the product of his new developments merit respect and admiration. Up provides ample room for praise even with its flaws.