Why I took Peter Gabriel Up again

Bryan Ledgard

I’ve been listening approvingly, if intermittently, to the music of Peter Gabriel for over a quarter of a century. So why did it take almost that long to appreciate fully just how great, and distinctively so, he is – his sheer singular brilliance? Paradoxically it may have been that very singularity; at a young age I took his big-selling So and Us albums as I found them, with not much more than an enthusiasm for Genesis and its other spin-offs, and soundtrack artists of a somewhat similar sensibility, for comparison. In time my enthusiasms widened to take in the broad narrative of song-based, guitar-led rock music, a narrative into which Peter Gabriel’s own artistic trajectory does not particularly fit, but on re-engaging with his work much later I could now appreciate how from his watershed third solo album onwards he has fashioned songs equally as crafted, insistent and impactful but from rather different, exotic and esoteric raw materials.

Or maybe it’s simply because I finally got round to getting Up, his slow-yielding but deeply rewarding last album proper, a masterful distillation of his musical development to date – and of much of what constitutes life itself. It is a beautiful record, and one I consider a masterpiece.

The two things that lately drew me back to Peter Gabriel could hardly have been more different. The first was the superb Brian Pern TV series, an affectionate, sometimes overly accurate parody of Gabriel and Genesis in which the man himself gamely made a cameo turn at each denounement. The second was the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in June last year, which had personal and political resonances for me; Gabriel wrote movingly about his impressions of meeting Jo and their ensuing friendship and dedicated ‘Love Can Heal’ to her in concert. This show of continued compassion and worldly engagement made me think of ‘Biko’ and what an extraordinary, and extraordinarily successful, first stab at an protest song it was; the powerful simplicity of its music and incantatory refrain and its deftly intuitive allegories.

Indeed an unusual and beguiling quality of Gabriel’s output is the way it roams freely between intensely subjective experiences of emotional and psychic anguish and the more materially pressing collective concerns of peoples and cultures with no sense of incongruity or unseemliness; instead they are seen as sides of the same coin – the plight merely of being alive in the world. Of the most obviously comparable artists, Gabriel may the lack the cultural reach of Bowie, David Byrne’s edgy New Wave kudos or the idolatrous affection reserved for Kate Bush, but in unaffected curiosity, unflinching self-disclosure and humanistic warmth he arguably trumps them all.

And to evoke this all Peter Gabriel really needs to do is open his mouth. That unmistakable soul-tinged, lived-in, lovelorn and world-worn instrument with which he is enviably bestowed. (Or as my dear departed father, who sportingly but bemusedly took me to his 1993 Secret World spectacle at Earls Court, put it, “Why does he always sound like he’s got a sore throat?”) Gabriel’s unique vocal style, the gravelly gravitas coupled with those yelping falsetto flourishes, is the facet Brian Pern couldn’t hope to nail. A drily complimentary quote from The Magnetic FieldsStephin Merritt, whose ‘Book of Love’ Gabriel honoured with a cover version, puts it wonderfully: “My version of the song focuses on the humour, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humourist.” Indeed.

Finally arriving ten years after his last big statement, 2002’s Up was the product of a characteristically elephantine gestation period – indeed only Peter Gabriel (or Brian Pern) could unveil a project so long in the works that one of its contributors, the legendary Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, had passed away in the interim. So long, too, that it found itself among a number of releases with the same moniker, REM having joked that they would further steal a march on their title-rival by calling their one Peter Gabriel’s Up. And in the intervening years this listener for one had drifted away and, bemused by his increasingly quixotic and wayward path, I may even have felt a strange touch of schadenfreude when on its eventual release Up failed to scale previous heights, garnering mixed reviews and fading quickly. But, in the words of a Gabriel-era Genesis song (admittedly sung by Phil Collins), More Fool Me.

In fact Up is the work of an artist who has made a record in his own time, on his own terms, and because he wants to, not needs to. Having laboured so long and with palpable painstaking care, Gabriel confessed to being wounded by some bad critical responses (of which Rolling Stone’s 2-star review can safely be added to its list of conspicuous clangers) but I doubt its commercial prospects were a primary consideration. There are not really any singles on Up, all but one of its ten tracks stretch out over more than six minutes, and only a couple could be considered upbeat. But perhaps fittingly for an album he described as “a bookends’ record, looking more at the beginning and the end of life than the middle”, the mid-period radio-friendly pop/R&B of ‘Shock the Monkey’ and ‘Sledgehammer’ is the only side of Peter Gabriel which isn’t aired during Up’s unhurried unfolding.

Not that any of the tracks outstay their welcome, or that indelible melodies and winning hooks and riffs don’t emerge after some attentive listening. And everything else in his arsenal is there, sounding better than ever and fittingly deployed; the multi-textured soundscapes layering instruments and noises of electronic, organic and indeterminate origin, the lively and ramshackle globe-trotting percussion sections, the underpinning by a resolute electro pulse or discerning drum groove. And that voice, whose ever maturing timbre befits themes of lost childhood, adult grief and looming death, often showcased high and dry in the mix, the better to convey them intimately.

All at the service of songs which similarly display his various writerly guises. The stunning opener ‘Darkness’, by turns thrilling and intensely moving, sets the standard of sophistication and contrast. Its grand sweep recalls the episodic shifts and varied dynamics of the Genesis era but with a contemporary, cacophonous edge which fans of Radiohead would admire, while lyrically it moves between the creepy menace of ‘Intruder’ and the therapeutic insights of ‘Love To Be Loved’. Then the fantastic bells-and-whistles stomper ‘Growing Up’ examines the totality of the human life cycle in detached and playful manner, with the brassy swagger of ‘Sledgehammer’ and ‘Steam’ now set to a modern four-on-the floor house beat. Later ‘The Barry Williams Show’ is an entertaining midway aside amid all the heavy subject matter, and updates the funky social satire of ‘Big Time’ to the age of the Springer and Kyle confessional TV format. Meanwhile the gentle, slightly Beatlesque whimsy of ‘My Head Sounds Like That’ recalls the pastoral stylings of ‘Solsbury Hill’ and the more traditional, sometimes piano-led songcraft of the early albums.

If much of Up’s delight lies in its musical richness and varied associations, its cohesiveness and pungency comes from its new and focused lyrical concerns. With just a few exceptions, Up is an album about mortality, reflecting on life’s trajectory, the passing of others and the ensuing intimations of ones own death. Though Gabriel is a proven lyricist of distinguished poetic imagery (the cinematic opening lines of Us’s ‘Come Talk to Me’ come to mind), the relative absence of allusion – and illusion – lends a raw emotional charge to its two centrepiece songs. Those who have witnessed a drawn-out demise or known the complexities of grief may find strangely affirming resonances in the deathbed scene of ‘No Way Out’ (‘The colour in your shirt is darkening, against the paleness of your skin’) and in ‘I Grieve’, which addresses bereavement at a firstly personal and then metaphysical level, always in the most straight-ahead manner:

“This flesh and bone
Is just the way that you were tied in
Now there’s no-one home”

Only the pointedly sparse and short closer ‘The Drop’ treats its topic allegorically, though simply and unmistakably; death as a parachute jump into the great unknown.

“One by one
You watch them fall
And wonder where they’re falling to”

Up examines this mortal life of ours from a variety of angles without presuming to answer its eternal questions – but it does throw up a few invigorating suggestions. For in the gorgeous gospel waltz of ‘Sky Blue’ and the angular uptempo jangle of ‘More Than This’ there is the sense that morsels of meaning are to be found either in sensual, elemental experience – of an open sky, plane or road – or in those fleeting transcendental intimations that sometimes seize us in the stillness of dawn or alone amid the elements. And the insistent onslaught of the penultimate ‘Signal To Noise’ seems a plea for clarity and bold assertion in the face of the finitude that has now been accepted.

There is nothing approaching a weak track on Up, and reminding me of Leonard Cohen’s shibboleth of only jettisoning lyric lines once they were as good as what was left in, one of my very favourite Peter Gabriel moments didn’t even make it on there. ‘Burn You Up, Burn You Down’, which grew out of a jam session featuring another of my musical heroes, World Party’s Karl Wallinger, was dropped at the eleventh hour, perhaps for reasons of duration or because this collaborative track didn’t fit the album’s tenor. Yet like the sublime ‘Lovetown’, similarly left off the Us album, ‘Burn You Up…’ displays Gabriel’s vocals at their most soul-inflected, as well as his underappreciated gifts as one of the most properly funky player/programmer/arrangers this side of Prince. And lyrically it similarly seems to reflect a new mid-life sense of urgency and sober pragmatism:

“I never thought we had so much time to lose
Just learning how to twist and shout
Doesn’t matter much which damn beat you use”

It is perhaps an irony that an album which deals with such unsettling and immutable issues is simultaneously the sound of an artist unhurriedly and assuredly working at the peak of his powers, consolidating his years of craft while stretching out that bit more expansively. If the fact that Peter Gabriel has not produced an album of new material in the intervening fifteen years is indicative of writer’s block then, well, it was always going to be hard to follow Up, which covers so much musical and human terrain. If instead this is merely an even longer incubation period for something as good as Up then my only niggling worry – and put this down to indulging in its musings on mortality, or maybe to his comedy counterpart’s recent “demise” – is that by the time it’s at the finishing line, he – or I – may have taken the drop.