Gabriel's Up is Down

Gabriel's new album is Up in name only: the album--his first in a decade (aside from some instrumental soundtracks)--is yet another exploration into life's mysteries and the dark places of Gabriel's mind. If truth-in-packaging laws applied to album titles, this would have to be renamed Down.

In his days with Genesis and on his early solo albums, Gabriel would take on personas (as in 1980's "Intruder") and express his thoughts and feelings through the characters he'd invent. On this disc and on Us from 1992 he seems to have taken to the personal confessional, bearing his own soul. "The deeper I go, the darker it gets," he sings on the musically violent opener "Darkness." That might be a good place to end a song about fear, but for Gabriel it's only the beginning of his exploration. While there are calm respites from the tearing musical fabric ("When I allow it to be, it has no control over me"), most of the song's lyrics offer brutal choices such as "I'm afraid of loving women and I'm scared of loving men." The man spends time confronting his personal demons--and in public.

Three other song titles, "No Way Out," "I Grieve," and "The Drop," let you know this isn't going to be easy listening, but then, Peter Gabriel albums never are. If you're expecting relief from "Sky Blue," you won't get it. What separates this album from his others is its almost relentless negativity. Listening through for the first time, I kept waiting for this album's "Don't Give Up" or "In Your Eyes," but it never came. "More Than This," featuring Real World recording artists The Blind Boys of Alabama (with two great CDs on the label BTW), almost gets there but remains earthbound.

The closest Gabriel delivers to "Sledgehammer"-style levity is a song called "The Barry Williams Show," about an imaginary program clearly modeled after "The Jerry Springer Show." If things are as relentlessly bleak Gabriel seems to think they are (and I'm not disagreeing), he could have taken aim at a more inviting, less obvious target. There are no clearly defined social protest songs like "Games Without Frontiers" or "Biko" here, though the world could probably use one right now. But he's the artist, and these are his choices.

There are traditional Gabriel elements like the "world beat" drums, the airy synth tracks, the vocals coming up from the murky depths, and all his other musical and sonic trademarks. You'll hear familiar chord progressions and musical patterns designed to elicit particular emotional responses, and--as they did on previous albums--they touch effectively, particularly on "I Grieve," one of the set's most memorable tracks (a version of which appeared in 1998 on the HDCD-encoded soundtrack to City of Angels). This track is more about the continuity of life ("Life carries on and on and on...") than about grieving and loss per se, but life still comes across sounding like more of a burden than a wonder.

Gabriel has always been a meticulous musical craftsman, and this album is as brilliantly produced and recorded as any of his many well-loved classics. In fact, this may be his best-sounding yet--and the mix by Tchad Blake, whose work usually drives me up the wall, is masterful (the Blake/Mitchell Froom team ruined many a Richard Thompson album for me, so maybe it was all Froom's doing). When it means to be intimate, the mix reaches out and draws you in. When it means to repel, it pushes you away, but it never sounds over-processed and larded with studio tricks. Gabriel's voice is particularly well-recorded and free of the iciness that infected digitally recorded albums like So. Drums have richness, texture, and weight.

Back-up musicians on this expansive, hour-plus project include longtime Gabriel rhythm collaborators Tony Levin on bass and Manu Katche on drums. There's even a vocal from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great Pakistani Qawwali artist who died in 1997. Given the 10-year gestation period for the album, it's hard to say whether his part was recorded for the album or taken from one of his Real World albums and layered into the mix.

If you approach Up expecting to hear musical progress or something new from Peter Gabriel, you may come away disappointed. Even with great artists, a clearly identifiable sound can be both a blessing and a curse. Gabriel's musical identity has been forged by certain chord progressions and motifs and via production techniques involving combinations of drum rhythms and textures and synth accents. They will all be familiar on this set and as you listen you may find yourself saying, "I've heard that before." But don't give up--once you get past the familiarity, there's a great deal worth savoring, musically and especially sonically. Just don't expect the record to be "up," though it is Up.

As for a comparison between the Real World/Geffen CD and the far more expensive Classic 200-gram Quiex SV-P two-LP set (which includes a 7-inch 45-rpm single containing a radio edit of "The Barry Williams Show" and a remix of "Cloudless"), if you really want to hear this record, spend the extra dough and get the vinyl, which sounds magnificent--dramatically better than the CD. The SACD hadn't been issued when this was written, but I can't imagine it sounding better than or even as good as the vinyl, which also happens to be brilliantly packaged. The LP comes in a satiny gatefold jacket with a die-cut chevron, color inserts, and a 7-inch-square booklet containing a series of photos chosen to accompany each song, plus full credits that you can actually read. This is packaging and sound worthy of the production. You won't be disappointed at having spent considerably more when you examine the goods and have a listen.