Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Peter Gabriel

Leaving the influential prog-rock group Genesis in 1975 was perhaps one of the wisest career moves Peter Gabriel has ever made. Increasingly in danger of becoming a parody of himself, Gabriel also made his getaway at the height of the group's critically acclaimed period, just after the release of the double-album "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" (Genesis then degenerated into a slick AOR machine led by perennially bald Phil Collins). Thankfully, he also ditched the flower-pot costume and other visual peripherals he used in his performances with Genesis.

"Peter Gabriel" (1977) was a well-intentioned stab at progressive rock, produced by Pink Floyd auteur Bob Ezrin. It opens with the intentionally weird "Moribund the Burgermeister", continues with the sprightly "Solsbury Hill", a brutally honest account of his departure from Genesis, but gets bogged down by the time the atrocious barbershop-quartet attempt "Excuse Me" rolled around. Things were somewhat redeemed at the end by the apocalypse anthem "Here Comes the Flood", but it couldn't disguise the fact that Gabriel still needed to get rid of his prog-rock leanings.

Gabriel released his second album in 1978, again called "Peter Gabriel". Legendary King Crimson leader Robert Fripp produced this one, but it was surprisingly free of the bombast prevalent in most King Crimson recordings. A collection of listless modern rock, the second Peter Gabriel was ultimately half-baked and uninspired, spawning only the microscopic hit "D.I.Y.". The only instance where Fripp was let loose to work his art-rock alchemy was on the spacey "Exposure", and the album ended on a lethargic note with the faux country & western "Home Sweet Home".

Gabriel's un-fecund imagination when it comes to titling his albums flourished with album number three, "Peter Gabriel". However, unlike his first two rather undeveloped albums, the third "Peter Gabriel" was a tour-de-force masterpiece of unsurpassed excellence. It was an all-round winner, with superlative tracks buffeted by compelling and masterful production by Steve Lillywhite. With nary a chink in its armour, it contained major hits like the martial-beat, acerbic "Games Without Frontiers" (an anti-war rant), the amnesia paean "I Don't Remember", and the epic anti-apartheid anthem "Biko". Other highlights were the lumbering, paranoiac "Intruder", the assassin's-point-of-view anecdote "Family Snapshot", the snarling guitar-rocker "And Through the Wire" and the menacing, jerky "Not One of Us".

Riding high on the commercial and critical success of his third album, Gabriel decided to have more experimentation on his next album. 1982's "Security" (it was known in the rest of the world as "Peter Gabriel" - no surprises there) incorporated Ethiopian pipes, Ghanaian percussion and other exotic instrumentation into a seamless, poly-rhythmic whole, and was his most adventurous work yet. "Security" was suffused with intricate percussive patterns, and was arguably the first album by a Western artist to integrate non-Western musical influences on a major scale. Security contained the propulsive hits "Shock the Monkey and "I Have the Touch", and also the rather imitative Biko rewrite "Wallflower".

It was also around the time of "Security" when Gabriel became known as a tireless advocate of world music, founding the annual WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival, and later, establishing the eclectic label Real World, arguably the best-known world-music label in the world. He also found time to score the soundtrack for the film "Birdy" before going into the studio to work on his next album.

"So" was released in 1986, and would go on to become Gabriel's biggest commercial success. It was led by the massively successful single "Sledgehammer", a tongue-in-cheek homage to Stax-era rhythm and blues (it was accompanied by an innovative animated video which would become an MTV staple), but its other tracks were superb displays of Gabriel's mastery of diverse musical styles. There's 80s dance-funk ("Big Time"), effortless art-rock ("Red Rain"), gospel-like balladry ("Don't Give Up", a lovely duet with Kate Bush), and even a genre-defying, cross-cultural musical tapestry ("In Your Eyes", featuring Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour). The "So" singles and their parent album all reached the upper echelons of the British and American charts.

Gabriel started work on another soundtrack after the success of "So", this time for the controversial Martin Scorsese film "The Last Temptation of Christ". Bringing together a diverse group of musicians from North Africa, India, the Middle East and Europe, Gabriel created a living patchwork of music that transcended geographical and temporal boundaries, sounding like nothing else ever heard before. The soundtrack, named "Passion" after an aborted title for the film, included luminaries like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N'Dour, Shankar and Billy Cobham, and featured the extensive use of traditional instruments like Turkish ney flutes, Indian violins, Egyptian percussion and Armenian horns. It eventually won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack in 1990.

Following "Passion", Gabriel continued work on the proper sequel to "So", eventually putting it out as "Us" in late 1992. Touted as his most personal work yet, Us wasn't as big a seller as "So", but it was definitely an even more diverse body of work than than its predecessor, basically incorporating the lessons learnt from working on the "Passion" soundtrack into the successful formula of "So". "Us" delved into personal issues on a hitherto unexplored scale, addressing Gabriel's past failed personal relationships. The first single from "Us" was "Digging in the Dirt", arguably Gabriel's darkest and angriest effort, with images of decay and despair. The next single, "Steam", was a faithful "Sledgehammer" facsimile and had all the funky elements that made that earlier single such a massive success.

Other standout tracks on "Us" include the delicate Sinead O'Connor duet "Blood of Eden", the swirling, wide-screen opener "Come Talk to Me", the hymnal "Washing of the Water" and the cathartic closer "Secret World".

Gabriel also started dabbling in multimedia projects after the release of "Us", releasing the "Xplora 1" CD-ROM. Xplora 1 may be a rather inchoate foray into multimedia, but it was a real novelty at the time of its release. More multimedia projects were initiated, which kept him busy for the next few years. There was also an announcement that a new album was being recorded, with the tentative title of "Up".

Work on "Up" would continue intermittently and fitfully, with a stopgap album of sorts put out in 2000. "Ovo", released in conjunction with the opening of the ill-fated London Millennium Dome, was a confusing hodgepodge of guests and ideas which never quite gelled. Unsurprisingly, no singles were released from it and the album sank without a trace.

"Up" itself was finally released in late 2002, and it proved to be a darker affair than all of Gabriel's previous efforts. The recurring theme throughout the album was one of death and mortality, with tracks like "Darkness", "No Way Out", "I Grieve" and "The Drop" all addressing man's primal fear of extinction. However, the evocative soundscapes and epic production values that Gabriel had become known for did give the proceedings a transcendent quality. But ultimately, its inherent and self-conscious sombreness makes it an easy record to admire, but hard to love.


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