The album begins with 'On The Air'. It opens very serenely, but don't be fooled. Before long the drums and guitar kick in and take you by surprise. There's everything you want from a rock song here - great yet simple drums, aggressive guitar, great bass lines from long-time collaborator Tony Levin that underscore everything. Gabriel's lyrics are psychedelic, when you can hear them. But sadly his voice is so garbled that the first lines recognisiable are Every morning I'm out at dawn, with the dwarves and tramps - the first lines of the second verse. That is the one thing that lets 'On The Air' down - the vocals which were obviously designed by the crowning glory, are almost impossible to make out save for the very good chorus and a few snippets here and there.
Having said that, it is a much better song overall than 'D.I.Y.'. It's bright enough, with twinking piano and crisp drumming, and the lyrics are both comprehensible and fully functioning, with lines like Don't tell me what I believe, 'cos I won't/ Don't tell me to believe in you, 'cos I don't. But musically this is way too simplistic. Peter Gabriel was renowned at this point in his career for extensively textured pieces which captured your imagination, as was present on the Genesis magnum opus, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974). But this is minimalism with a distinct indifference to it, and as a result it doesn't work.
'Mother Of Violence' takes the minimalism a little further by scaling things back to just Gabriel, piano and a little acoustic guitar. It is easier to make out most of the lyrics here, and the track takes the best parts of both the previous efforts and does its best to combine them. Occasionally a line or two will slip past and disappear into the texture, but most of the time this song about fear and family fulfils its function.
Much better though is the next track. 'A Wonderful Day In A One-Way World' has a clearer message, with politics coming to the forefront. This song is clearly about materialism and being standardised around modern social expectations. The music takes a beat seat to the lyrics in the verses, with only a few chinks of cowbell and some synthesiser undercurrents to back them up. Most of the time this pays off, as Gabriel's lyrics teeter on the edge of genius:
"My name is Einstein, do you know time is a curve?"
I said, "Stop old man, 'cos you've got a nerve
'Cos there's only one rule that I observe:
That time is money, and money I serve."
On the chorus the instruments rejoin and the whole thing somehow works, even if the end result is a little middle-of-the-road. 'White Shadow' goes one better by making the music more intrusive, with in-your-face keyboards and sinsiter bass from Levin, backed by standardised drumming from Jerry Marotta. But while the music is very good at setting the dark tone, Gabriel is away with the falsetto fairies. So while musically this is very good, Gabriel's singing shatters the mood to the extent that you not only can't understand what he's singing - you also don't really care that much. Which in this case is bad news.
'Indigo' is deeper in tone and more shallow in subject. The rhyming is simple to the point of being casual, but at least Gabriel's voice is pleasant enough to make you try to understand him. Like 'On The Air', Robert Fripp's poor production means you can always make out the individual instruments, and yet the vocals are a lot less discernable. Nevertheless, this does have a je ne sais quoi draw to it which is almost impossible to explain. 'Animal Music', meanwhile, is littered with dark bass lines and decent guitar shredding from Sid McGinnis, and yet it feels inane. This song about magic has lyrics which sound like they were written by Paul Daniels as an advert to his waning audiences. It's a trashy pop song which tries too hard and ends up sounding like a chaotic miasma of noice, and very little more.
'Exposure', co-written by Fripp, is a showcase for Fripp's own inventiveness. In the days of King Crimson, he created frippertronics. Essentially, this involves putting two two-track tape machines beside each other and running the tape around the two in a figure of eight with both players on at the same time. This creates a delay of between 3 and 5 seconds between the same parts on, for instance, a guitar, depending on how far apart the tape machines are. It's very clever, but overall this feels like an ambient piece, something that Brian Eno could have created with half the effort. It feels like a self-indulgent showcase of Fripp's questionable talents, like Gabriel was contractually obliged to let him his bit of fun and in the process ruin the record.
'Flotsam And Jetsam' has an Oriental feel at the start, indicating the begininngs of Gabriel's fascination with world music that would rear its head properly in the next two albums. Lyrics like Doing nothing, stuck in the mud fit in rhythmically with the feel of the piece, and though again they - annoyingly - make very little sense, that is not the main flaw of the song. That is that it's only 2:22 long, so with all the fancy instrumental work there is scarcely enough time to develop any kind of thread to link the lazy lines together.
'Perspective' is probably the only time on the album when things gel perfectly. There's some great drums both at the start and through, and for the first time we have (a) guitars and keyboards playing together and not off each other; and (b) a lyrical hook (I need perspective). Add a very good sax part into the mix and you have a mild-mannered toe-tapper, with Gabriel singing the best that he can be while Fripp is at the desk. It's quick, it's catchy, it's in-your-face and it's brilliant.
'Home Sweet Home' turns things right down to close the album. This is also very impressive. With the over-produced aggression stripped away, the lyrics, as much as possible, come through and you can understand the story which they chronicle. It's a mournful ballad about having a family, death and moving on from tragedy, with lines like "We gotta get out of here, you", she said,/ "I've been saying it all the while"/ When I came home from work that night/ She jumped out the window with our child. This is a line that would be easily at home on some of Gabriel's later, more introspective work, particularly Us (1992). It's a beautiful piece which doesn't overstretch its purpose, and the album is drawn to a close by a wonderful organ part.
When considered alongside the rest of his discography, this feels like a case of one step forward, two steps backward for Gabriel. The one step forward is the introspective side of his work which would make his later albums more all-rounded and focus. The backward steps are the awful production - while Bob Ezrin overproduced parts of Peter Gabriel 1, he had at the courtesy to make Gabriel's vocals understandable - and the lack of focus. While its predecessor had the clear intention of being a departure from 'the Genesis sound' by experimenting with different styles and genres, Peter Gabriel 2 is a deeply frustrating record which has little complete purpose and no uniting concept. For all the positive touches, it is best described and treated as a transitional album, a bridge between the light-hearted creativity of Peter Gabriel 1 and the darker, more atmospheric tones of its successor.
3.73 out of 5