If you are a reader of my blogs, you will see that I like to compare albums by an artist. Not to pick a winner and loser, rather to look at writing styles, production techniques and where that artist or group are in their careers.
Peter Gabriel: Genesis (1967-1975), solo (1975 – present)
A tale of two albums: Us, his second most commercial, and Up, the last album of original material. These are difficult albums to compare, they seem to have very different trajectories.
I’ve written about Gabriel before. Like Phil Collins, I have my a lot of respect for Gabriel, and as much frustration. I deeply respect both, for a variety of reasons, and both disappoint me at times. How’s that for a confusing opening statement?
I always felt that Gabriel got too much credit for the early Genesis years, but that didn’t stop me from being deeply interested in his solo career. It took him two albums before he found his sea-legs, and began to live up to his talent and musical vision.
Us, released in 1992, was his sixth studio album and took about three years to make, coming six years after So. During this time he also did soundtrack work and toured extensively, but Gabriel does not work fast. So reached number two on the charts and sold more than five million copies, and had five singles. So, was a tough act to follow. Us, did not sell as many copies and have the commercial sheen, but is arguably as creative, and a bit more reflective. Us and Up have a lot in common, even though made ten years apart. If I was just wanting to compare successful albums, I could have used So and Us, but I am more interested in comparing the emotional content of his two most recent studio works.
Produced by Gabriel and Daniel Lanois. All songs written by Gabriel.
“Come Talk to Me” With vocal assist from Sinead O’Connor and bagpipes. It has a great beat, but not too dense, there is air for the song to breathe. Not a single but a great opening to the album.
“Love to Be Loved” A lovely beat and swirling piano and guitar fills. I’m not sure I’ve heard an arrangement from Gabriel quite like this. On top of a serious beat, is a great use of other instruments that provide a jazzy quality.
“Blood of Eden” Another song with Sinead O’Connor, who provides backing vocals. Released as a single, it didn’t chart well, but it did get airplay. Gabriel employs a gentle world beat. The backing accompaniment is soft and does not complete with the vocals.
“Steam” An arrangement like “Shock the Monkey” with a big beat, inventive rhythm accompaniment and horns. A big single around the world. A big video award winning song, when that was a big deal.
“Only Us” This is quite a song pallet, shimmering sounds coming in and out, structured around a very creative set of beats. It’s a mystery how he created this song, it reminds me of “Strawberry Field Forever” how it shifts direction, with segments that somehow fit together. Not one of my favorite songs, but a very interesting one.
“Washing of the Water” A gentle ballad, and a very expressive vocal performance.
River, river, carry me on To the place where I come from So deep, so wide, will you take me on your back for a ride If I should fall, would you swallow me deep inside River, show me how to float, I feel like I’m sinking down Thought that I could get along But here in this water, my feet won’t touch the ground I need something to turn myself around
“Digging in the Dirt” A heavy groove, with more guitar than usual. The lead single, not a big hit, but it introduced the inventive nature of the album. He could have given this a denser arrangement, I’m glad he didn’t. One of Gabriel’s best.
“Fourteen Black Paintings” A slow atmospheric build-up, like Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” A really nice change of pace.
“Kiss the Frog” An MTV video award wining video. Hidden meanings in the song of a sexual nature. Gabriel used to really work his songs that were singles. Not one of my Gabriel favorites, but musically it does rock, the arrangement is quite good.
“Secret World” Gabriel reuses the same groove, but seem to give it just enough change to keep it fresh. Not a great song, but better than filler.
Up was supposedly at least seven years in development, maybe longer. Again, it is grounded in Gabriel’s personal life and his struggles, at least the somber and dirge-like mood, bathed in death and grieving, make this an intense experience. Never one to back away from a challenge, Gabriel seemed to struggle with how to land this behemoth. With the exception of one song, all are six or seven minutes long, a veritable assault on your senses and endurance.
From that paragraph, you might think that I hate the album, on the contrary. It reminds me of those days, when I’m out of sorts and I don’t know what’s wrong, but I need my space. The moods are not dark but they are serious. The thoughts are deep and my brainwaves are buzzing. This album is like that – it is heavy and loaded with a lot to process. Not only are the lyrics complex, the arrangements are dense, there are many layers of instruments bouncing between your ears (listen on headphones). Gabriel learned from Bob Ezrin on the density of sound production. An album like this could never had made during his Genesis days, the recording technology didn’t exist.
Now, having expressed my general like for this album, it is not without problems. Unlike Us, this album sounds too much the same. Unless you listen several times, you feel like it repeats itself and the somberness wears you out. Not every song deserves to be over six minutes or approaching eight minutes. More is not always better. As his own producer, and generally left alone by his record company, Gabriel called the shots and made the project he wanted to. Late in his career, Phil Collins suffered from his own excess. Success brings power and independence.
There is something to like about each song on Up. Granted, you may not enjoy each song in totality, especially given the length of each, but Gabriel is a talented songwriter and he has a smooth and expressive vocal ability. These songs show Gabriel’s talent at melody and big, expressive sounds. Without an obvious single, this album could not generate a lot of interest, and the reviews were mixed. Critics saw the downbeat nature of the subject matter, the length of the songs and nothing jumped out as a hit.
“Darkness” A lovely song with stark blasts of sound. Perhaps, emphasizing the suddenness and all consuming nature of the darkness in life. Most of his solo material sounds nothing like Genesis, but this song does.
“Growing Up” has a rousing and catchy beat, but does not include upbeat lyrics to match. Gabriel can write very infectious groove-laden songs. With a bit more effort, this could have been a sizable hit record.
“Blue Sky” A somber song with some expressive vocal work by Gabriel. There is some beauty in this song. It doesn’t rise to the commercial viability as “Don’t Give Up” or “red Rain” but it is lovely no less.
“No Way Out” Another somber and moody melody. By itself, this song is nice, but tucked in with others of equal emotional pulse, they sound the same, none of these stand out.
“I Grieve” Guess what, another downbeat song, even deeper than ones you’ve already heard. Seven plus minutes is very long. Granted, there are some lovely parts to this song, but how much can you endure?
“The Barry Williams Show” A commentary of television shows that air society’s depravity. One of the more upbeat, bouncy songs. Overall, one of the weaker songs, it wears out its welcome long before 7:16.
“My Head Sounds Like That” has some gorgeous sections, Gabriel sings with great feeling. The song is very dense and feels padded. A different arrangement would have helped emphasize the best parts, there are some.
“More Than This,” wants to be a very positive and uplifting experience. It is one of the more upbeat songs on the album. A simpler arrangement, losing some of the heavy atmospheric keyboards, could have made this an even better song.
“Signal to Noise” is an interesting journey into noisy rhythms and intricate string arrangements. It’s hard to say anything is unusual for Peter Gabriel, but this song may be.
“The Drop” is the shortest song, just over three minutes, with a simple piano arrangement. Gabriel can be very effective with just an instrument and his voice.
Which album? If you want a commercial groove, go with Us. If you are interested in a deeper and darker reflection, with songs that need some patience and a few listens, go for Up.