Peter Gabriel: Up (Universal)

He’s capable of a level of profundity and passion that few artists can match.

Ten years. That’s how long fans have had to wait for a “proper” new album by Peter Gabriel. Entire genres have come and gone since Us, Gabriel’s last album of actual songs was released in 1992, and the world music that Gabriel helped spearhead is now featured in TV commercials and reality shows like “Survivor.” So PG finally returns and what does he do? He puts out an album with the same title as REM’s next-to-last offering. Evidently he chose the title before Stipe and company, though—so we’ll go easy on him.

Which is more than ol’ Pete does for the majority of his audience with his newest effort. Notwithstanding the fact that “Sledgehammer” was an incredibly popular video on MTV for years (and a creative marvel at the time), or that he’s previously composed some perfectly wonderful tunes that almost anyone could enjoy (“Solsbury Hill,” “In Your Eyes”), Gabriel is a very serious and introspective type. He’s capable of a level of profundity and passion (such as, in fact, Passion, the pioneering soundtrack to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ) that few artists can match. “Wallflower” and “San Jacinto” were past examples of Gabriel’s empathy for—and identification with—victims of oppressed cultures; Gabriel created masterful music to accompany his lyrical laments. On the new Up, it’s not another culture that’s giving Gabriel a case of the blues—it’s our own. Or more exactingly, Up is a series of tunes about struggle in general—the struggle to stay clear-headed and maintain priorities in a chaotic, exhausting society. “The world is turning to noise/The more that it’s surrounding us/The more that it destroys,” Gabriel sings in the beautifully orchestrated tune “Signal to Noise,” which showcases the primal wail of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And indeed, the whole album seems to document an ongoing battle with the “noise” of existence.

On the somber opening track, “Darkness,” Gabriel assures us that “I have my fears/But they don’t have me,” which may be a bit of determined self-talk more than anything else (although Gabriel is nothing if not a musical control freak). “Growing Up” is a rhythmically interesting tune that seems to be about arrested adolescence, the anxiety of “growing up, looking for a place to live.” The alternating high-low vocals in what serves as a chorus are very reminiscent of early 10cc. “I Grieve” is the sort of tune Gabriel can do better than almost anyone else. It directly addresses the feelings of helplessness and sorrow when the loss of a loved one occurs. “It’s so hard to move on/Still loving what’s gone…/Nothing yet has really sunk in/Looks like it always did,” sings Gabriel, and the way he captures the disorientation and disbelief of real grief is undeniably powerful. Tears will be shed by some listeners over this tune, undoubtedly.

Some relief is provided, at least musically, by “The Barry Williams Show,” which has nothing to do with the actor who played Greg Brady. No, this is a slashing satire of misery-oriented TV talk shows as epitomized by Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones. Gabriel sings in a gruffer voice than usual, reciting a litany of the sorts of wretched topics presented on these programs: “My lover stole my girlfriend/I keep beating up my ex/I wanna kill my neighbor/My daughter’s selling sex/My SM lover hurt me/My girl became a man/I love my daughter’s rapist/My life’s gone down the pan.” The innocuous “la la” background chorus proves an amusing contract to the fury and disgust of the narrator (and hopefully more discriminating TV viewers).

Perhaps the disc’s best song is “My Head Sounds Like That,” which is an eccentrically arranged art song revealing that Gabriel may have listened to some Radiohead in the last few years. The combination of gentle keyboard and a nearly ambient brass arrangement is stirring, and PG’s vocal, already powerful, creates shivers when he ascends to a falsetto against an unexpected minor chord progression after each verse. Beautiful piece of work. As is the previously mentioned “Signal to Noise” and the sweet (and brief, for a change!) piano-laden closer “The Drop,” in which Gabriel sings with warmth and restraint.

Up is not an easy listen—most of the tunes are at least six minutes long, and the melodies are often buried. It certainly isn’t the kind of record you put on in the background, and these days, when many listeners want their sonic kicks on first listen, Gabriel’s contemplative, textured arrangements may not find their audience easily. But with patience, Up becomes a poignant, compelling work. Gabriel possesses a unique combination of self-awareness and cultural astuteness, and when he’s on the mark musically, as he is at least half the time here, the results are as powerful as rock (or “world music,” for that matter) ever gets.

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