After spending his first two solo albums fumbling around for a sound, Gabriel struck gold on Peter Gabriel 3 (1980). Unlike the light-hearted Peter Gabriel 1 (1977) and the subdued oddity Peter Gabriel 2 (1978), this had a darker, more atmospheric feel, encapsulating in Gabriel's claustrophobic lyrics and Phil Collins' thundery drumming. For the follow-up, Gabriel relocated to Ashcombe House in Bath to experiment with the latest electronic samplers and develop his new-found love of world music. After the commercial success of his last album, Gabriel was free to tour more elaborately and purchase more complicated equipment to add to the much-anticipated follow-up.
On these grounds, 'The Rhythm Of The Heat' is an ideal choice as the opening track, taking the darkly claustrophobic feel of Peter Gabriel 3 and adding the ticking clock, à la musique concrète - that is, the use of sounds recorded from the real ('concrete') world to create or compliment music, utilised brilliantly by Pink Floyd on 'Money'. Based on psychoanalyst Carl Jung's experiences of African drumming, it's a very atmospheric piece which draws you in, slowly but surely, before the darkness takes control. Gabriel's delivery is somewhere between a echoed whisper and a scream, as he lets the music do the talking. It's a very meticulous and intelligent piece, in which we get the first taste of world music on the record as the suspense dissolves into the wide pandemonium of the aforementioned drums.
'San Jacinto' moves from Africa to Asia, opening with an elegant instrumental backdrop faintly reminiscent of 'Flotsam And Jetsam' (see my review of Peter Gabriel 2). To make things even more eclectic, this is a song about Native Americans; the protagonist is an elderly man who despairs at seeing his native culture overwhelmed by the standardisation of white American settlers.. The lyrics smack of references to this in a very subtle way, even including extracts from what sounds like the Sioux language. Like a lot of Gabriel's later work, this is a heavily textured piece which explores religion and spirituality without being preachy, and for that reason the meaning isn't always clear. The refrain, San Jacinto/ I hold the line, is sung with great passion by Gabriel, perhaps alluding to why the song become a live favourite during the Secret World tour.
'I Have The Touch' is another in-your-face track, whose drums this time have a much more electronic feel. But David Lord's echoey production and the pace of the song give the feeling of this being played to a crowd of dancing fans. The lyrics are simple yet clever; lines like Any social occassion, it's "Hello, how do you do?/ All those introductions, I never miss my cue capture the themes of communication and human empathy. Though at time things sound a little synthetic - especially in the unnecessary bass before the middle-eight - this is a highly listenable song which doesn't lose anything in the process.
Hereoin in things become a little more difficult. 'The Family And The Fishing Net' is a song which compares the modern marriage ceremony to a voodoo ritual - hardly Gabriel's most anodyne subject matter. From the start it is relentless in its deceptive tempo, which is slower than 'I Have The Touch' but creates a sinister feel of something lurking behind the listener. The main criticism of this though is Gabriel's voice: not only is he often very off-putting in his choice of notes, he is also sometimes difficult to comprehend. Unlike on Peter Gabriel 2, this doesn't matter because the music is rich enough to support the song, but as we shall see this is a problem which afflicts this album a little too much.
It is often suggested that the track culled as a single is usually the worst on the album. 'Shock The Monkey' is a case in point. Rather than being about animal rights - as many suggested at the time - this is about jealousy, taking the idea that envy causes human beings to behave in primitive and instinct ways. This is a great idea, but the result is a number which is lyrically very flat and musically very irritating. The world influences are there, but they are squandered on what is essentially a pop song, a chance for Gabriel to showboat his vocal range while neglecting the best features of what could have been a brilliant song.
'Lay Your Hands On Me' marks the end of the typical mid-album dip. Gabriel's choice of themes remain diverse as he explores healing through trust, something he would expand on ten years later. This is a quieter and friend number, but the synthesised rhythms and deep keyboards keep up a brooding, sinister façade. The opening lines are both psychedelic and Biblical: Sat in the corner of the garden grill/ With the plastic flowers on the windowsill/ No more miracles, loaves and fishes/ Been so busy with the washing of the dishes. There are some subtle yet wonderful riffs in this piece on what sounds like a steel drum of some kind. True, this is a little too long, but not to the extent that it becomes boring, especially with the energetic guitar-drum ending.
Good as this track is, it is nothing compared to 'Wallflower'. Beginning with the combination of shimmering keyboards, high-pitched guitars and Uilleann pipes, this sounds ethereal and mystical even before Gabriel launches into the lyrics. Like 'Biko' on the previous album, this is a song about human rights and the treatment of prisoners, this time focussing on Latin America rather than South Africa. This is a wonderfully poetic number which showcases Gabriel's talents without being ostentatious. Like 'Family Snapshot', you get the impression that aspects of Gabriel's own life are in this piece. As if that wasn't enough, the chorus is pure beauty: You have gambled with your own life/ And you face the night alone/ While the builders of the cages/ Sleep with bullets, bars and stone/ They do not see your road to freedom/ That you build with flesh and bone. At the end of the song, Gabriel promises that I will do what I do, over and over - perhaps hinting at his prominent future involvement in human rights.
'Kiss Of Life' sends us out dancing. With its processed African drumming and Latin-style trumpets, it's a showcase for all things world, and a great track to dance to. Gabriel has rightly chosen to end on a bright note having spent the majority of the album expounding his views on the negative side of the modern world - albeit in a slightly lighter way that on Peter Gabriel 3. This is a splendid track which, while it can't possible match 'Wallflower', would have made a much better singler than 'Shock A Monkey'. With its infectious refrains and sensitive use of keyboards and guitar to balance out the world music, this is a wonderful closer.
Both through his records and his label Realworld, Gabriel has done more than most in the music industry in bringing world music to the fore. And this is the record to turn to if you're not convinced. Gabriel doesn't just take token samples from different continents and bung them on average Western songs so that they sell better. Instead he weaves the rhythms of the different genres into a rich tapestry, creating a very textured soundscape over which the social and political themes can be based. Sometimes things come unstuck in either the production or his choice of combinations - with both being the case on 'Shock The Monkey'. But in general this is a sterling effort from Gabriel which sets him apart both as a musical pioneer and a survivor of the punk era which had killed off so many of his contemporaries. If nothing else, this is a great way toi prove his abilities as a musician without either showboating, as he would do on Birdy (1984), or fumbling around, as he did in the late-1970s.