Monday, 7 April 2008

Top 100 Albums - #39: Us (1992)

At number 39 is Peter Gabriel's Us, his long-awaited follow-up to So (1986) and his seventh of nine entries.So brought Gabriel commercial success, something he undoubtedly deserved but didn't know how to deal with. Like his former bandmates, who left a gap of five years before the release of We Can't Dance (1991), Gabriel chose not to capitalise on his new-found fame with a quick follow-up. Being a man for whom the phrase 'more of the same' is completely anathema, he instead devoted his energies to humanitarian causes, beginning with tours for Amnesty International in 1986 and 1988. During this time he also put in a performance at The Secret Policeman's Third Ball in 1987, for the same organisation, playing 'Biko' to close the concert. After recording Passion (1989) for Martin Scorsese, Gabriel suffered a series of personal tragedies which led to extensive periods in therapy and a lot of scope for new material.

This impossible sequel begins with 'Come Talk To Me', and like 'Red Rain', the opener on So, this starts softly and then starts to unfold with a nervous swagger. Featuring Sinead O'Connor on vocals, this song describes Gabriel's troubled relationship with his first daughter, Anna. And while it cannot come close to 'Red Rain' in terms of raw spiritual power, it's still a great song to start things off; its lyrics unfold at a pace which is leisurely enough for you to appreciate the richness of the mix. Not only is Gabriel's voice perfectly complimented by O'Connor, but the production (the work of Daniel Lanois) means that it is clearer than ever before - and he's at the peak of his powers.

Having started on a lively note, we take things down a bit with 'Love To Be Loved'. Opening with some attractive tabla (a Hindu variant of the bongos), this is again a very easy listener. And like the last song, this swells very gradually, teasing you and yet rewarding you at the end. Here Peter is on his own, but that doesn't matter one bit, because the voice is good and the lyrics are verging on catchy. The chorus in particular has a great structure which blends seamlessly with the verses to form one fully functioning unit. And while he may not be pushing the limits of his vocal registers to any great extent or frequency, his voice still radiates power and the final workout is incredible.

Well, not quite. 'Blood Of Eden' is an incredible track. As you would expect from the title, there are Biblical tones here, but don't think for one minute that this is a preachy foot-stomper. Quite the opposite. Opening with some tender violins and sweet guitar, this is a eulogy for humanity. And what an eulogy - Peter pours his heart and soul into this song, with lyrics that stick in your throat and almost bring you to tears. The chorus is depectively simple, and yet completely breaktaking: In the blood of Eden/ Lie the woman and the man/ With the man in the woman/ And the woman in the man etc. The break after the second chorus is proof of Peter's ability - not just in the way in which he holds the high cry but the passion which goes into it. O'Connor's harmonies on the chorus are sublime, slotting in perfectly to create a true heart-surger. This is one of the album's defining tracks: it's carefully constructed, given the space it needs to breathe and develop - and as a result it's flawless.

After all that tearjerking serenity, we need something a bit more exciting. And 'Steam' does just that. Often derided as simply "Son of 'Sledgehammer'"¹, in reality it's so much more. This may have won awards for innovation in video, just like it's dad, and like its dad it is a song with sexual overtones. But unlike 'Sledgehammer' this is not overplayed and overidentified with the 1980s. This helps it to stand better on its own, and given the chance to do that, it shines. Its pulsating drum beat, combined with David Rhodes' visceral guitar, create a sharp pulse over which rides the distinctive bass of the masterful Tony Levin. Meanwhile, Gabriel's lyrics are cheeky, inviting you to form your own conclusions.

After doing so well, we hit an obstacle with 'Only Us'. This wierd intro sees a combination of flashy electronic effects, faint guitar and echoed world vocals. And that more or less sets the tone for the rest of the track, which is as murky as hell. Trying to make sense of this track is like trying to navigate through a labyrinth with your eyes closed. And even once you've established that you won't understand it, and sit back to try and appreciate the feel of things, you are left with at least four wasted minutes as it leaves you unfulfilled.

Thankfully, 'Washing Of The Water' is a definite return to form. The song starts off very mellow, with just a lilting drum beat and almost whispered lyrics. But this will not send you off to sleep. Gabriel offers up exhilirating vocals, backed by the graceful piano whose notes glide like a boat on a lake. It's a serene, relaxing tune which swells to its emotional conclusion with an expression of contentment on its face. It may well be the shortest track, at 3:52, but it unwinds to its conclusion without a drag or a rush.

'Digging In The Dirt' is more serious, more angry, more brooding. It's not sinister enough to make your hair stand on end, but you are made to feel claustrophobic. Then, just when you think you've adjusted, the anger explodes and you are plunged into the terrifying chorus. This achieves the unusual feat of being an aggressive, dark rock song which manages to come across as tender, all without a hint of slush. The rage suits Gabriel's raspy registers, and the result is an all-round great.

Unfortunately, the next two tracks are decidely half-cocked, in more ways than one. 'Fourteen Black Paintings', described by Rolling Stone as "music for Third World airports"², is poor. With its lonely duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument, like a clarinet in sound), this is muddled and, like 'Only Us', jam-packed with echoed vocals. It feels misdirected, like Gabriel is just dumping world music in the mix to serve as continuity. 'Kiss That Frog' is even worse, though. This is a song where, as soon as you know what the lyrics are about*, you can't listen to it again. Unlike 'Steam', which was clever, this is completely shameless. It's Gabriel growing old disgracefully - and it isn't pretty.

Thank God, though, for the closer. Not only does Gabriel redeem himself with 'Secret World', he sets the bar even higher for next time. At 7:03 you certainly get your money's worth, but more than this, this is the distilling of the album into a microcosm of absolute joy. The opening tittilates you with its playful guitar, lingering keyboards and methodical drums, courtesy of Manu Katche. Then Gabriel comes in, and you instantly recognise his honesty. The third verse is amazing - In this house of make-believe/ Divided in two, like Adam and Eve. And again in the chorus - In all the places were we hiding love/ What was it we were thinking of?. This is spectacular live, as the Secret World tour proved, it makes your heart race and your face brighten. It's a masterpiece, unequivocally.

While So easily passed as a singles album which you could dip in and out of, Us requires your full and unmitigated attention. It is hardly surprising, for an album that took six years to make; indeed a work any less meticulous might have been a disappointment. But rather than being an obsessive, difficult work, like The Final Cut (1983, #49), this is as rewarding and as empowering as its predecessor, if not more so (no pun intended). As you would expect from such a personal work, there are times when the quality slips, either because the material becomes impenetrable or the subject matter makes you flinch. But at its heart, Us is a passionate odyssey through human emotion and the rollercoaster of relationships. It deserves a place in any collection, where it may unwind over the years, delighting you with something new every single time you play it.

3.90 out of 5

¹ Greg Kot, 'Us', Accessed on April 16 2008.
² Ibid.
* Fellatio

1 comment:

Paul said...

Hi Daniel, thanks for leaving a comment on my blog (please check back for replies). I can only reccommend John Lennox's book to you.

By the way, we have several things in common, such as blogger accounts, black backgrounds, and a good taste in music ;-)
I wrote about Peter Gabriel a while ago ... check this: (sorry, don't know how to include a link in a comment).