Sunday, 19 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #72: Hit (2003)

Peter Gabriel's most recent... 'offering' is the compilation Hit, a comprehensive double album of all his hits and personal favourites. Like a Kate Bush offering, Hit is essentially two albums in one: the side subtitled 'Hit' contains all of his most commercially successful songs, while 'Miss' comprises of less successful songs which also met with critical acclaim.Gabriel has had a solo career spanning three decades and yet has only released two 'greatest hits'. Both Hit and its predecessor, Shaking The Tree (1990), came at times when Gabriel had come into or returned to the public eye, and both sought to remind listeners that there was a lot more to him than just 'Sledgehammer'. Shaking The Tree came four years after So (1986), Gabriel's most commercial successful offering. At this time it was clear that his output was not only slowing, but changing in its intentions and focus. In between So and the wholly different Us (1992), Gabriel had gone into world music overdrive with Passion (1989), the soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988). This influence would show prominently on Us. Hit, in the same way, came just a year after his 'comeback' Up (2002), a shift to minimalist and acute introspection and a complete departure from the days of So.

The 'Hit' side opens with 'Solsbury Hill'. This song, written about leaving Genesis, is taken from Peter Gabriel 1 (1977). It opens with some of the finest acoustic guitar on record, a simple enough riff which carries all the power of a Dylan classic. Then the flutes kick in to make room for Gabriel's angelic tones. And that is not hyperbole - Gabriel's voice here is melodious and mellifulous. Few others could deliver a song about falling out with the people who made you famous and yet make it a very happy listen.

'Shock The Monkey', from Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80), is a step backward after such a great start. As I said before in my review of PG4, this song about primitive urges of jealousy has vast ambitious; it is a very inventive metaphor to use in describing that most basic of human emotions. But while 'Solsbury Hill' was a brilliant effort which just happened to become a pop hit, 'Shock The Monkey' feels like it was deliberately written as a pop song. Considering what he had to compete with in the early-1980s, this is almost by default a number that is at best a hard listen and at worse just plain annoying.

'Sledgehammer' and 'Don't Give Up' are both from So and are a return to form if not formula (see what I did there?). Being a collection of singles, this version of 'Sledgehammer' has disposed of the rather annoying flute introduction contained on the original album. But this song is still not perfect, for one reason. While the original version was fresh but let down by the annoying flutes, this radio edit is flawed because it has been relentlessly overplayed, so that it now feels a little too 1980s to be considered a proper masterpiece. 'Don't Give Up', on the other hand, is more heartfelt and thought-provoking. It has in its favour both the gorgeous instrumentalism and an in-form Peter. The let-down is the female vocals: Kate Bush, fresh from Hound Of Love (1985), sounds too kooky for this song, undermining its emotional impact. (Gabriel connoisseurs, or anyone who has seen the Secret World film, will know that Paula Cole does it way better).

Bush is also the problem on the next track. 'Games Without Frontiers' was never one of Gabriel's better songs, at least when compared to some of the stuff on Peter Gabriel 3 (1980). While the musical side of things is very attractive, Gabriel is again trying to hard to do pop while neglecting the purpose of this song about warfare. What is also annoying is that he has subtletly tweaked the lyrics to be more politically correct. Sure, Whistle me tunes/ We piss on the goons in the jungle is hardly suited to the 21st-century lexicon, but then this is supposed to be an historical record of Gabriel's work, not an opportunity for him to correct his mistakes.

'Big Time', also from So, is a carbon copy of the album original. Clocking in at 4:29, there was no need to create an FM-friendly version. This was an ironic hit, in that became successful by attacking the very thing which made it successful. It's a savage attack on 80s narcissism and greed, told through a man with a big head and bigger ego - everything is big, from the words he speaks to the pillow on his bed. With lines as sublime as When I show them round my house to my bed/ I had it made like a mountain range, with a snow-white pillow for my big fate head, it's a caustically catchy song and one of the better tracks on So.

Next comes a real oddity. 'Burn You Up, Burn You Down' is a new track, which could be described as a 'non-LP single' in the sense that it sound like an offcut from Peter Gabriel 4. It's insanely catching from outset and the lyrics are easy to pick up on: Pilgrim knows the road to go/ And many times we told you so may not be the most intelligible lines ever written, but they fit very well. Having said all that, in the final third this song runs completely of steam, slowly fading out into a vocal exercise for all involved. By the end, you've gone from tapping your toe and singing along to wondering what the hell just happened.

A truncated version of 'Growing Up' is the first song taken from Up. While the original, which is over 7 minutes long, enticed you with long and atmospheric instrumentals to build you up, this cuts straight to the chase and as such that feel of an obsessive masterwork is lost. But the strength of 'Growing Up' is that, like a lot of Gabriel's singles, they are idiosyncratic and as such instantly recognisable.

This is certainly the case with the next two songs. 'Digging In The Dirt' and 'Blood Of Eden', both taken from Us, are more subtle if no less atmospheric. 'Digging In The Dirt' begins with a subdued, slightly sinister opening, before becoming a full-blown world-rocker. It's angry yet tender, aggressive and yet restrained by the textures brewing in the background. It's a very fine piece which both stands well on its own and slots well into the album. 'Blood Of Eden', featuring the vocals of Sinéad O'Connor, is a deeply emotional number complete with crooning violins and sensitive guitar. Gabriel is on top form vocally, as is O'Connor, which creates another heart-surger. Again, it's annoyingly truncated, loosing an entire verse, and yet none of the emotion or passion is lost.

If only the same could be said for 'More Than This'. Lifted straight out of Up, this is not a good song either in its original, 6-minute form or the short version included here. It's a little uninspiring, considering all the stuff that is going on. That serves to make it more choatic and incoherent, rendering the whole thing a let-down.

But before long, we turn back the clock to 1980 and 'Biko', the closer to Peter Gabriel 3. Again, it's a little shorter to make room for all the tracks. But this is a coup because the song sounds almost exactly the same. All the experiments work - the humanitarian lyrics are untouched, so that lines like When I try and sleep at night/ I can only dream in red/ The outside world is black and white/ With only one colour dead still resonate. 'Steam' is lifted straight from Us and retains its impact. Critics at the time put this down as a rehash of 'Sledgehammer'; while the themes of this song are similar, this actually feels fresher, if only because it wasn't as overplayed as 'Sledgehammer' (how could it be?). While this is better performed live - see Secret World - it's still a great song and deserves its place on this compilation.

The last two songs on the 'Hit' side both send the other 13 into the shade. 'Red Rain', the finest track on So, is absolutely majestic. It pushes every button on a Gabriel fan: it's introspective, it's rich in texture, it's openly emotional, and it's highly intelligent when it comes to lyrics. Gabriel sings at the top of his range without straining, and as such this song about a recurring dream filled with blood is given the full treatment it deserves. Even better is 'Here Comes The Flood'. But this is not the overproduced, pulling-at-the-heartstrings original. This is taken from Shaking The Tree, and it's scaled back to just piano and vocals. This, and the slower tempo, makes it both easier to understand the lyrics and more powerful. It's the best track thus far.

'Miss' begins with 'San Jacinto'. A welcome return to Peter Gabriel 4, this is a catalogue of world music: Asian instrumentals to set the tone, mild amounts of African drumming just after the 2-minute mark, and Native Americans are the subject of the lyrics. It's a subtle number, hinting at his later work, which makes you see why this didn't become a hit. It wouldn't have work as a single simply because it is too intelligent to be considered chart-worthy.

No Self-Control', from its predecessor, open aggressively with the multiple synthesisers and xylophone parts. This is one of the few occassions when xylophones can be described as moody or sinister. Gabriel conveys in his delivery a feeling of utter desperation and claustrophobia. The repeating line I don't know how to stop/ I don't know how to stop. Once again Kate Bush is on hand to prevent this from being a complete triumph, but this is a very mature and atmospheric marvel which provides, if nothing else, the ideal introduction to Gabriel's best album.

'Cloudless', featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama, is the first and only track from Long Walk Home (2002), the soundtrack from the film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) about Australian aborigines escaping correction programmes into the 1930s. The basic rhythms were sampled and put to better use on 'Sky Blue' on Up. Here, although Gabriel does contribute, this feels like a world track without his art rock motifs. As a result we are led to question both the quality of the song and its purpose on the album.

Order is restored by 'The Rhythm Of The Heat'. Another track from Peter Gabriel 4, it's untweaked and as such retains all the original's benefits and qualities. The musique concrète of the ticking clock, Gabriel's whispering scream-of-a-delivery, the meticulous production, the drumming pandemonium - it 's all brilliant stuff (see my review of the album at #80 for more details). The same can't be said for 'I Have The Touch'. Here, all the African influences have been stripped away. The opening has been replaced by backwards speech and distinctly Western drumming; the ending lacks the charm of the original by replacing it with an exhibition of self-indulgent guitar-plucking. As such this misses the mark by a very long way.

To join a long list of those to quote Monty Python: "And now for something completely different." 'I Grieve' is another track culled from Up, and so you would expect it to be different. Written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this does the subject matter justice even at the expense of becoming a vocal workout for Gabriel. It does sound at points like a means for him to prove that, at 52, he can still deliver vocals with the power and strength needed. Frankly, he didn't need to - it's obvious.

'D.I.Y.' is the only song liften from Peter Gabriel 2 (1978), which entered out chart at #85. As I more or less said before, this is a simple exercise in late-1970s pop which is too simplistic to be considered a classic - "minimalism with a distinct indifference to [texture]", or something along those lines. Sure, it's a good pop song - but Gabriel didn't get as good as he is by writing good pop songs, did he? The next song is another strange choice. 'A Different Drum' is lifted out of Passion and feels distinctly out of place, just like 'Cloudless'. In the context of the entire soundtrack, this is a very good song, which like the whole album grows on you the more you listen to it. Here, it's completely at see amid the rock-world hybrids. It might make you want to hear it in its proper context, but that's about it.

Back to Up now with 'The Drop'. The closer on its album is a very solemn affair. Like 'Here Comes The Flood' it's just Peter and a piano, but the difference is that this is completely void of any message of hope or a future. It's a song about death, the kind of thing you'd listen to lying on your back amid a sea of candles. The lyrics are almost morbid, and even if they're indistinct at times, after a few listens they dwell deep inside you.

The reputation of 'The Tower That Ate People', taken from OVO (2000, #81), should mean that any different version would tarnish the quality of the song, let alone a fully-blown remix. Here, I am glad to say, I was wrong. Sure, the more industrial, Robert Fripp-inspired influences are gone, but their place is amply filled by angry keyboards, strange screeches and heavy drums. The lyrics are more processed, but this doesn't matter; and the instrumental section in the middle really create the image of machinery and chaos which made the original so compelling.

From one of the best songs included on the album, to one of the worst. 'Lovetown', taken from the soundtrack to Philadelphia (1994), is by all standards rubbish. It's Gabriel's attempt at soul music, which he just can't manage. The song just isn't suited to his vocal range - it's all wrong in all ways. The guitar is lazy, the lyrics are lacklustre and the result is the least compelling track he has ever produced.

Thankfully, the next two songs reward our perseverance so that we almost forget 'Lovetown' ever existed. 'Father Son' is straight out of OVO and as I said before is an excellent song. Like all his good soundtrack stuff, it both stands up on its own and relates part of the story. Gabriel's delivery gels well with the Black Dyke Mills Band, and the feeling you get from listening to it as a deeply satisfying one. The other, 'Signal To Noise', is one of the best songs on Up. Beginning with the atmospheric drum and violins, Gabriel half-croons, half-sneers the lyrics before blossoming into some wonderfully contained screams. By the end the energy level is critical and the whole thing explodes with the words Receive and transmit! so that you are absolutely blown away.

'Downside Up' is the only live track on the album, and it's just as well. Melanie Gabriel, Peter's daughter, delivers the female vocals a lot better than Elizabeth Frazer, whose original version on OVO sounded downright prissy and horrible. But the result of this is that everything good about the original piece is lost - the guitars, for instance - and replaced by something gratituous and awful. The annoying violins add nothing, nor does David Rhodes' guitar; Peter sounds weak where Paul Buchanan was so strong; and the OVO, OVO, OVO chant at the end is incredibly annoying.

It's just as well then that we finish on a high. 'Washing Of The Water', from Us, is a tender, sombre and swelling number which again sees Gabriel reaching exhilirating vocal peaks. It's mellow up to a point, with the drumming gentle, but there are always subtle hints of something brooding under the surface. It's a great finisher, although fans might want to avoid the dodgy version recorded with Jools Holland in 2003.

Gabriel's work is not suited to compilations, and so Hit is a frustrating collection for all but the casual listener. Those who have studied his music in greater depth than simply buying his singles will be disappointed by some of the inclusions. Where, I might ask, are such heights of genius as 'Secret World', 'That Voice Again', or 'Down The Dolce Vita'? The soundtrack inclusions, barring those from OVO, as generally below-far; there is not enough from Peter Gabriel 2 and it focusses too much on his post-So career to make it a truly definitive collection. On the other hand, this is not just an album for casual fans. The versions of 'Here Comes The Flood' and 'The Tower That Ate People' are brilliant enough to make you buy this for them alone. In short, Hit is a good collection released at an appropriate time in Peter's career. If nothing else, it reassures the more impatient among us that Gabriel has at least spent his time meticulously creating albums instead of approving endless compilations.

3.77 out of 5

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice review of the Gabriel album. Just a minor point, the lyric is not histle me tunes/ We piss on the coons in the jungle

it is whistling tunes, we piss on the goons in the jungle

equally non-politically-correct, I know, but it's more a satire on the gung-ho army type thing that happened in Vietnam, etc..

I don't think Peter has ever said the word "coon" in his life :)

Designed to Provoke said...

Cheers. Will change it when sober

Anonymous said...

Regarding the lyrics being tweaked in Games Without Frontiers - that was done in 1980, for the single release - it was not done in 2003 for the Hit album.

The "Hit" album merely features the 1980 single mix of the song, which was exactly the same as the album version apart from that one line that was changed.