From outlandishly costumed art-pop singer to world music pilgrim, human rights activist to video-savvy platinum dance-rocker, Peter Gabriel is the very model of a major modern highbrow music star: intellectual, involved, entrepreneurial, creatively adventurous, technologically au courant. That he’s enjoyed massive commercial success along the way seems almost incidental to his personal global village; the relaxed pace of his recording career in no way bespeaks an absence of enthusiasm. He’s just got too many other things to do. Not quite as pompous as Sting or as hidebound as Paul Simon, less of a chameleon than Bowie but more artistically committed than Madonna, Gabriel is a unique figure, and his occasional records have never succumbed to predictability, overbearing pretension or lazy plainness. It’s risible to recall that Phil Collins took over for him in Genesis in the mid-’70s.
The symphonic pretensions of the first Peter Gabriel power a dramatic perception of personal and global apocalypse. Produced by Bob Ezrin, and featuring the playing of Robert Fripp, Tony Levin, Steve Hunter and the London Symphony Orchestra, the album’s dark rock songs (“Solsbury Hill,” “Modern Love”) on Side One are paired with disturbing visions of armageddon (“Slowburn,” “Here Comes the Flood”) on Side Two, delivered in a wall of sound that fills in every musical corner.
In contrast, the second Peter Gabriel, produced in Holland by Fripp, employs the spare and uncluttered sound popularized by the punk movement. (Although you would hardly mistake this for a punk album, Gabriel does neatly display his cognizance and support of what was going on with the song “D.I.Y.”) The new method showed Gabriel condensing his songs into tight units linked by themes of paranoia. Freed from the onus of art-rock, Gabriel presents his most obsessive and personal compositions (e.g., “On the Air,” “Perspective”), packets of insight that are misleadingly restrained. (The first two records were combined on a 1983 British cassette. Issued a decade later, Revisited is a needless and not-quite-complete condensation of them.)
Gabriel returned to a fuller sound on his third album, emphasizing striking electronics developed over unusual rhythms and delivered with seeming desperation. The ballads of social violence and urban fear — including “I Don’t Remember” and “Family Snapshot” — feature lyrics and intricate music finally blended (under producer Steve Lillywhite’s direction) into perfectly integrated high pop. “Biko,” a haunting political anthem about the South African martyr, and the internationalist “Games Without Frontiers” reveal Gabriel’s deepening commitment to global issues and social action.
The fourth Peter Gabriel (issued as Security by his American label, a move Gabriel did not endorse) refines this, drawing further on exotic rhythms (from Africa, Asia and America) with a musique concrète technique made possible by the Fairlight synthesizer, which allows unlimited manipulation of recorded sounds. Gabriel delivers his examinations of fear and disaster with an oddly paradoxical new emphasis on hope and restraint, displaying his usual fine craft and quality. “Shock the Monkey,” “I Have the Touch” and “Kiss of Life” are among the best things he’s ever done, combining all of his strengths — lyrical, melodic, structural and experimental — into bracingly original pop music with a solid footing.
Peter Gabriel numbers three and four were both issued (separately) in Germany — and later, on CD only, in the UK — as (Ein) Deutsches Album, with Gabriel singing all the lyrics in German (as translated by Horst Königstein). Not every song holds up equally well to the linguistic reworking: “Spiel Ohne Grenzen” (“Games Without Frontiers”) and “Schock den Affen” (“Shock the Monkey”), for example, gain tension and emotional power, but German is too harsh a tongue for fragile songs like “Biko” and “Contact.”
Three live tracks, recorded in 1979 and 1980, appear on the second edition of the Bristol Recorder, a combination album/magazine issued by a small English label in 1981, a forerunner of Gabriel’s full-length live album. The two-disc Plays Live was recorded in America in 1982 (although some acknowledged “cheating” was later done) and features a good recap of his solo career, relying most heavily on the two most recent records. The four-piece band includes Tony Levin and Larry Fast. (The double-CD contains the entire album; in Britain, fans on a budget could also choose an abbreviated single disc.)
In the mid-’80s, Gabriel began doing film soundtracks. For the Birdy score, he wrote new material and adapted previous recordings. Although it’s uncommon to hear sustained instrumental work from someone so known for vocal music, the score is audibly identifiable, and provides a fascinating glimpse into his adaptational thinking. A strongly affecting work, a major challenge met admirably with style and character.
So, Gabriel’s first new studio album in four years, is another adventurous, varied and striking record, with atypically self-reflective lyrics, some of them clearly demarcating a past-present-future boundary. (The cover portrait also suggests an attitudinal change of some sort.) Gabriel’s characteristically sophisticated music touches on funk (“Sledgehammer”), lightly gospel-inflected balladry (“Don’t Give Up,” with prominent vocals by Kate Bush), folk (“In Your Eyes,” with vocal backing by Jim Kerr and others) and catchy dance-rock (“Big Time,” featuring Stewart Copeland on drums). The commercial sound and resultant big-time success of the record led to complaints that Gabriel had compromised himself artistically but, on its own merits, So doesn’t support such carping.
The Sledgehammer 12-inch EP contains a dance mix of the title track, an extended edit of “Biko,” the non- LP “Don’t Break This Rhythm” and a remix of 1982’s “I Have the Touch.” The cassette and CD of the Big Time EP have different track assortments, but both include three non-LP items.
Beginning in 1982 with his pivotal role in the WOMAD festival and organization, Gabriel has made ethnic world music a major focus of his work. Via the Real World label, he has brought out records by artists from a wide variety of cultures, and his own music has become increasingly intertwined with traditional styles well outside Western forms. In creating the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, Gabriel first made field recordings (a selection of which are compiled on Passion — Sources) from musicians in such places as Turkey, Senegal, Egypt and Morocco. Those provided the inspiration (and, in some cases, actual material) for his original compositions on the two-record Passion. This extraordinary mating of modern and ancient musics unifies an enormous geographic spread into a vaguely Middle Eastern sound that is utterly engrossing in its multitudinous use of instruments and Gabriel’s deft manipulation of atmospheric sounds into narrative music of exceptional beauty and drama.
Shaking the Tree refracts Gabriel’s solo career to match his maturing sensibilities. (Or, one could imagine, insurmountable inter-label politics.) “Solsbury Hill” is the only track from the first album preserved intact; “Here Comes the Flood” gets a new acoustic piano rendition. The second Peter Gabriel is overlooked completely; other than tokens from Passion and his work with Youssou N’Dour (“Shaking the Tree,” from the Senegalese star’s 1989 album, The Lion) that are unlikely to be on many fans’ top-sixteen lists, the material comes entirely from the third and fourth Peter Gabriel albums and So. For all that, the compilation covers most of the essentials, with only “Contact,” “Kiss of Life” and “D.I.Y.” standing out as serious omissions.
Gabriel’s next two releases were a studio album and its attendant tour document. Like So, co-produced by Daniel Lanois, Us sets out to confront a great topic (romance) from a higher artistic plane than any of his previous records. More like abstract sound paintings with vocals and drums than sharply drawn song-type things, the dreamy soundscapes drift along on languid clouds of electronic coloration, engaging the senses with enough international accents (from bagpipes to Mexican flute, djembe to Senegalese shakers) to preclude Anglo-American mundanity. Sung in a husky, scratchy voice, Gabriel’s lyrics explore a failed relationship (with actress Rosanna Arquette, who receives guilty liner-note thanks) in the reserved resignation of a caricature Englishman: his disappointments and inwardly aimed regrets (especially on paper) are retentive, nearly constipated, and too prosaically stiff-upper-lip for words. While ruminating on his loss with disappointing simplicity, Gabriel conveys more in the pallor of his passion than in any of his prudently scripted lines. Still, “Kiss That Frog” (rendered as a gloomy house track) offers an unattractive self-portrait; “I knew all the time I should shut up and listen,” he admits in “Only Us.” It’s hard not to sympathize, although not for the obvious reasons. Amid the folky allure and exotic affects, the album makes two stylistic exceptions: “Washing of the Water,” a Tom Waitsy piano ballad sung with aching directness, is a finely wrought digression, while “Steam” and “Digging in the Dirt” are obnoxiously transparent attempts to reprise the big-dollar dancefloor bump of So‘s “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.”
The two CDs of Secret World Live come from a pair of ’93 shows in Italy. Typical of Gabriel’s artistic precision, it’s no warts’n’all get-it-on-tape-sling-it-out job, but the finely tuned result of extensive post- production, enough evidently to carry the straight-faced quip that it’s “based on an original concert by Peter Gabriel.” The bulk of Us makes up about half the fifteen-song program; a solid dose of So, “Solsbury Hill,” “Shaking the Tree” and a couple of non-LP items complete the bill. Significantly, some of the songs get expansive new concert arrangements: although singer Paula Cole makes a poor Bush substitute, “Don’t Give Up” sprawls theatrically past seven minutes; an exciting vocal assist from Zairean soukous great Papa Wemba helps elongate the deliriously uplifting finale of “In Your Eyes” into double digits without losing drive or focus. With intense vocal performances from Gabriel and robust, detailed accompaniment by bassist Tony Levin, drummer Manu Katche, guitarist David Rhodes, violinist Shankar and others, the great-sounding Secret World Live is nearly as enfolding an aural experience as the studio worlds it brings to (controlled) life.