'The Story Of OVO' is a rap-like number, designed to outline the story. It opens like a complex outtake from Passion, before Omi Hall and Neneh Cherry (of all people) interject. As we shall see throughout the course of the album, the story revolves around the characters of Theo (the agrarian father), Ion (the industrial and impetuous son) and his sister Sofia. While the point of the track is to set out the plot for those not used to the idea of a concept album (or rock opera), it is pointless to retell it without considering the individual songs. Although this is a rap song, this does not feel like Gabriel ageing without any grace. Indeed his vocal contributions are a perfect foil for the other vocals, which gel surprisingly well.
'Low Light' switches the emphasis from rap to celtic music, while keeping the world influence. This track begins with a long and perfectly constructed instrumental section, which acts to set the scene on a world of unravaged and harmonious beauty, like the one over which Theo would preside. Like a long of progressive music, this is song to take you places in a darkened room. The haunting lyrics of Irish vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird don't harm the piece at all, and like a lot of world music lyrics the musical texture is so poised and intricate that you don't need to understand or translate the words to be emotionally moved by them.
'The Time Of The Turning' in the story marks the beginnings of an economic and environmental shift, as the old agricultural world of Theo, based around living in harmony with the earth, begins to pass away. Ritchie Havens' delivery is earthy, breaking and absolutely suited to this song, while Elizabeth Frazer puts in a good performances of the like that made Massive Attack's 'Teardrop' so poignant. Backed by what sounds like a mandolin and a subtle host of violins, this is another deeply atmospheric piece which deserves many plaudits.
The first sign of Gabriel biting off more than he can chew comes on the next track, 'The Man Who Loved The Earth/ The Hand That Sold Shadows'. The opening is a carbon copy of 'The Story Of OVO' with just the lyrics removed. As a result it sounds too much like a field full of grasshoppers and angry drummers to serve any purpose, adding little to the storyline. By the time the song shifts to the second part, we still don't get any more information about Theo: the piece is littered with industrial-sounding guitars and steel drums which feel completely out of place in a scenario thoroughly fit for folk or psychedelia.
'The Time Of The Turning (Reprise)/ The Weavers' Reel' restores focus and the sees the first appearance in the story properly of Beth, the mother figure who sees the future in the patterns that she weaves. The lyrics, delivered beautifully by Frazer, are of rock opera quality:
It's the time of the turning and the old world's falling
Nothing you can do can stop the next emerging
Time of the turning, and we better learn to say our goodbyes
The piece then takes on a more lively turn. An anxious acoustic gives way to an Irish reel and the feeling of flux and rapid change is conveyed perfectly in this lustred number, which finishes with some powerful and aggressive Dhol drumming to keep the world music influence and give the impression of a global change.
All these songs so far have been great, but they cannot top the next two songs. 'Father Son' sees the death of Theo as his world begins to fall. Ion, his stubborn and rebellious son, sits with him and struggle to come to terms with the distance between them. Gabriel sings this accompanies only by piano and a muffled Black Dyke Mills Band, and he sings with such heartfelt abandon that he might just as well be singing about his own father. It's an introspective masterpiece which not only achieves its function as a part of the story, but which stands alone as a damn fine song outside of the concept.
The other true masterpiece, for different reasons, is 'The Tower That Ate People'. Here all the serenity of green fields has been replaced by the menacing of iron and steel, as Ion transforms the Earth through machinery. He creates this mighty tower and builds machines to liberate the people of the Earth, but they end up becoming enslaved by them (hence the title). This has a darkly industrial feel, with wonderful guitar work and punchy drums. Gabriel's delivery is angry, fiery and potent enough to send shivers down your spine. This is a deliberately claustrophobic song, designed to force you in and leave no means of escape. Not only that, but lines like We're building up and up/ 'Til we can touch the sky and Man feed machine, machine feed man lyrically convey the modern ideas of progress and perfection that Gabriel was trying to convey.
So far, then, so very good. But here's the bad news. The next four tracks all fall short, in that they convey the storyline but don't stand well enough as songs in their own right. 'Revenge' smacks of anger, retribution and raw energy, depicting the rebellion of the disillusioned Sky People, led by Beth, against Ion's industrial dystopia. The trouble is, for all the wailing keyboards and attacking drumming, it's too short to develop into anything meaningful. The same can be said for 'White Ashes'. Again, the storyline holds up - we do form pictures in our minds of Ion's empire being incinerated, and him with it, as the female vocals conjure up images of flames. But the electric drums and screeches don't so much as add as subtract from this piece, which would have been much more pleasant and minimalist without them.
'Downside Up' should be better on all counts. It features great vocals from an in-form Paul Buchanan. It keeps the story moving, talking about Sofia's fated and forbidden love for Sky Boy which permanently unites the Earth People and Sky People before the great flood (no jokes about a certain song, please). It's a great song melodic with rolling guitars. And yet it is reduced to average nature by one critical error: giving Frazer the lead female vocal. While she was well suited to the quieter efforts, on this rockier piece she sounds prissy and weak, bringing down the energy of the whole piece. A better version is between Peter Gabriel and his daughter Melanie, the live version of which is included on Hit (2003).
'The Nest That Sailed The Sky' is the sending-off of OVO, the child of Sofia and Sky Boy into the unknown future. It's a beautiful piece which again conjures up images of an open sky with the future of the world hovering and sailing over the waters. But for all the beauty of the flutes and the keyboards, this is a little too long and repetitive, albeit in a very subtle and atmospheric way. By the time you've got halfway through this instrumental, you've got the message, and the remainder sounds like the kind of music you play mid-way through the credits on a film.
Thankfully, this is not the end. The closer, 'Make Tomorrow', is Gabriel's expression of hope for the century to come. Though it begins rather slowly, this swells with an atmospheric murmur into some wonderful guitar and double bass, before Buchanan comes in and sings at the top of his range with heavenly panache. Frazer returns to form with the female vocals, delivering her vocals with an ethereal grace. And Havens pops up at the end with a welcome interjection, singing a part to which Buchanah would not have been suited. Everything is here to showcase Gabriel's composing skills, and while this is not in the same league as something like 'Father Son', it's still extraordinary.
Like much of Peter Gabriel's later work, OVO was panned by AllMusicGuide.com. The supposedly all-knowing, comprehensive guide, claimed that: "OVO sounds labored, choppy, and pasted together... musically it isn't consistent enough to sustain the listener's interest."¹ Sadly for them, they were wrong. Very wrong. While Birdy and Passion both showcased his abilities as an instrumental composer (and rightly so), this is a concept album or rock opera passed off as a soundtrack. And like a proper concept album or rock opera, there are themes and narratives which are neither convoluted nor lost in the music. Sure, this may not be on the same scale of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974), but it is just as ambitious, with great vocals which gel rather than jar with the music. There are flaws - it's too long, has a lot of filler in it and not all of the attempts to synthesise different genres pay off. But as an album in its own right and a document of the Millennium optimism which vanished 18 months later, OVO is a great record that will stand the test of time.