Peter Gabriel

Someone taking ten years to complete an album is either a magician slowly unfurling a trick silk handkerchief — or a gasbag sitting on an impossibly big turd. Anyone startled by Peter Gabriel’s stillborn recent single, the numbingly mediocre (and passé) Jerry Springer bash “The Barry Williams Show,” would be forgiven for assuming the MIA artist had locked himself in the outhouse.

But for all his apparently very time-consuming technical obsessions, the key to Gabriel’s music might not be sequencers but sequencing. Program “Show” out of Gabriel’s new Up and the album is a layered tour de force, by turns jarringly primordial and lushly melodic. Beginning with “Darkness” (first words: I’m scared), which rips apart delicate piano figures with distorted Klaxonlike fury that sounds like a burglar alarm reporting a snatched soul, and spiraling down to the wobbly piano-and-vocal fragment “The Drop,” Up unravels until its creator is naked. On an album concerned with mortality and solitude, “The Drop” is an unsettling conclusion. As the last Gabriel song of a year in which all of his music — most of it also unsettling — was re-released, it’s as hard and final as a headstone.

Geffen’s reissue of the ten albums that preceded Up — counting two soundtracks, a hits collection and a truncated version of his 1985 live set — brings Gabriel’s reticence into sharp relief. To say he’s not prolific fails to do justice to anyone who quit hoping Up would ever come out. That would be less frustrating if several of those ten albums weren’t just stunning but genuinely groundbreaking.

Three years after painting himself into an art-rock corner with Genesis’ swan song as a five-piece, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel’s first self-titled disc, from 1977, and its follow-up a year later repositioned him as a cowbell-tipping modern rocker. Producers Bob Ezrin (PG1) and Robert Fripp (PG2) turned Gabriel’s remoteness and ironically warm voice to the music’s advantage. Ezrin’s Teutonic bombast put PG1 a few kilometers down the wall from Lou Reed’s Berlin, which he also produced. Fripp, who played guitar on PG1 but not PG2, locked Gabriel’s voice in the compressor to turn what sounded distressingly like PG1 leftovers into sonic dioramas depicting brutality on a one-on-one scale, each musician impeccably placed in the claustrophobic mix. For the first time, Gabriel and his music were approachable, if hardly terrestrial.

But in 1980, Gabriel — along with former bandmate Phil Collins’ hulking drum sound — emerged fully on his third album. It and 1982’s Security embraced Gabriel’s primary muse — fear — with a shuddering, rhythm-based musical attack that was itself scary. Both albums still sound fresh and inventive — turns out Gabriel’s isn’t a formula other musicians, even two decades on, have tried very hard or successfully to copy. From PG3 to Up, each of Gabriel’s successive albums further refines his chord-over-rhythm architecture, eschewing guitar leads and vocal harmonies for bottomless layers of precise, jigsawed sounds. Yet the music never merely washes; it swirls and laps and draws.

Thanks to brilliant remastering, the vertiginous PG3, an aural slasher movie with a humanist resolution (“Biko”), now feels like the same nail-biter viewed through the tunnel vision that comes before a blackout. Security is still quintessential Gabriel, one-stop shopping for ebullient source-music rave-ups (“Kiss of Life”), unlikely pop (“Shock the Monkey”) and Amnesty International posters (“Wallflower”). In “The Rhythm of the Heat” and “San Jacinto,” it also has Gabriel’s most alluring tracks.

The reissues also re-emphasize Gabriel’s quirks and clunky sense of humor. Long insistent that his records were volumes of a larger body of work rather than discrete entities, Gabriel’s rejection of album titles is finally indulged in the U.S. market with spines that include only his name and a thumbnail reproduction of the cover art. Likewise, though Gabriel’s earnestness is his most obvious Achilles heel, his wit — self-consciously arcane but undeniably subtle — has always done more damage to his music. “Kiss That Frog,” an egghead’s plea for fellatio, doesn’t derail 1992’s Us — but only because the horny “Sledgehammer” retread “Steam” already has.

So, too, it goes for “The Barry Williams Show,” a speed bump made more grating by the knowledge that its inclusion on the otherwise stunning Up comes at the expense of any of more than a dozen other contenders. Some of those songs might turn up on I/O, the already-titled album Gabriel says he will release next year. See you in 2012.

Categories: Music