Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Top 100 Albums - #22: Up (2002)

Peter Gabriel's penultimate chart entry is Up, the long-awaited follow-up to Us (1992, #39).
After the release of Us in September 1992, Gabriel embarked on a massively successful world tour, captured on the album Secret World Live (1994) and on the subsequent DVD. The tour featured a menagerie of the most highly skilled musicians, from long-time collaborators Tony Levin and David Rhodes to newcomer Paula Cole, whose performances helped to kick-start her solo career. Gabriel spent the next few years tying up the loose ends of the tour while beginning the recordings for what would become Big Blue Ball (2008), a multi-national collaboration headed up with Karl Wallinger. In 1997, he embarked on a project for the Millennium Dome, to design a show and compose the music for the celebrations on New Year's Eve, 1999. The project, which ran through two years, eventually produced OVO (2000, #81). In 2002 he composed Long Walk Home, the soundtrack for the award-winning film Rabbit-Proof Fence, about the plight of Australian aborigines.

A good opener should always make the mood of the album clear, and 'Darkness' achieves it in spades. For the first 30 seconds it is tentative, obsessive and scarily quiet; you know that something else is coming, but you also begin to relax. Then the whole mix explodes in front of your eyes. Rhodes' guitar is angry and distorted, Manu Katche's drums are ferocious, and the whole experience sends adrenaline rushing through your veins. Gabriel, meanwhile, sits in the eye of the storm, reciting the lyrics like a poem while his voice is altered as he sees fit. This does make it harder to understand first time out, but after a while you don't really notice.

'Growing Up' is a lot less in-your-face - which comes as a relief - but is hardly worse off where substance is concerned. The deep cello at the start reminds you that we are still dealing with the tragic side of the human condition. While the single version contained on Hit (2003, #72) could have passed for punchy, this is more meticulous and drawn out. It may have a faster beat, but there is a lot more going on; it entices you, it tempts you, but you still have to make your own way in. Gabriel's lyrics are more arty than his mid-80s commercial period. Indeed, the bridge would not have been out of place on Foxtrot (1972):

Well, on the floor, there's a long wooden table
On the table, there's an open book
On the page, is a detailed drawing
And on the drawing is the name I took

If sources are to believed, 'Sky Blue' took twenty years to complete. And yet, at first glance, it is suspiciously familiar. Fans who bought Long Walk Home will be quick to spot the similarities with 'Cloudless' from that album - the almost identical riffs, The Blind Boys of Alabama on backing vocals, and the spacious, pathos-riddled production. On closer inspection, however, this is not just Peter repeating himself. By adding in some electronic paraphernalia at the start, and a decent set of lyrics, he has taken the best elements of a distinctly average track and made them into what they should always have been.

'No Way Out' begins - after a while - with one of the best guitar riffs recorded in the last 10 years. Rhodes plays the four-measure phrase on his Fender Strat with a unique, sinister menace; the reverb is so great and deep that it sound like a bass, and that makes it frightening. This pulsating riff is counterpointed by the fingertippy piano of Gabriel and Levin's funky but unimposing bass. This is the first track to deal solely with death, and it wins the first battle by setting a bleak mood. Gabriel then pulls off a neat second trick with a set of lyrics which stand at an odd angle but eventually become clear. He peruses over the second verse - and the subject of goldfish - as if he is in mourning for a lost friend. Couple all this with the repeating emotion plea - I'm not quitting on you - and you have one of the best songs he has crafted in a long time.

'I Grieve' is often believed to have been written as a response to the 9/11 attacks. Although I stated this in an earlier blog entry, this is actually a myth, since the song was written and completed in its present form as far back as 1998 (I apologise). Despite this, you do sense that Gabriel is singing these words with his loved ones in mind. Just as his elder daughter Anna was the subject of 'Come Talk To Me' on Us, so he could easily be singing this about his younger daughter, Melanie. In any case, he is certainly using this track as a means of silencing critics who were saying that his voice had withered in the intervening years. It has certainly changed, but he can still get upstairs when he needs to and sound bloody amazing in the process.

For 'The Barry Williams Show', however, the words we're looking for are 'bloody stupid'. The whole thing, from start to finish, feels ham-fisted, outdated, corny and sometimes downright embarrassing. This is a case of Gabriel trying to prove that he is still cool, can still keep up with the kids of today. That is a grave error since: (a) they probably don't want to know; and (b) Gabriel's commercial success was never premeditated or packaged - that's what made it so compelling then, and now. This feels fake, really fake - fake enough to make you reach for the off switch and despair that someone of his stature could have sunk so low.

If, on the other hand, you have the patience of a saint (or a album blogger), you will still be around for when the album gets back on track. 'My Head Sounds Like That' is a welcome return or retreat to introspective mood pieces, packed from end to end with solemn soundscapes and dolorous piano. This time we get the Black Dyke Band as well; they lit up OVO and they achieve the same effect here. The tempo may be ponderous, but this is compensated for by Gabriel's performance. He takes the cryptic style of lyrics, as on 'Lay Your Hands On Me', and then strains his vocal chords to shift the piece up a gear (see my review of Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80). The break is especially good, as the sounds and words mash together and start messing with your mind.

'More Than This' is the most upbeat we get on Up. Which is a shame, because whether as an album track or as a single, this is not a good song. This is an example Peter is trying too hard - not to be cool, as before, but to be interesting. There are some lovely touches: the opening riff isn't all that bad, and Rhodes' bright phrase at 0:56 could really have gone somewhere in the region of 'Solsbury Hill'. But there is so many little motifs like these going on, that it ends up as a chaotic, incoherent flop.

'Signal To Noise' soon puts that to rights - and some. The distinctive dropping drum in the first few seconds, along with the atmospheric violins, make you realise that this is going to be something special. Gabriel begins the first verse in a downbeat, jazzy sneer, and then goes into a full-blown scream with only the deep strings to keep him tied down. Throughout this wondrous track, you can sense him wanting to break free, wanting to snap and speak his mind. But every time he is trapped by this rich, tantalising vapour of noise, where it be electronic tics, reverberated drums or the solo performance of the late Nusrah Fateh Ali Khan. In the final third of your song, your tried patience is melded with paranoia and fear as the track rises, and rises, and rises. Only now, with both singer and listener at a critical level, does the whole thing explode, blossoming into a frenzied and terrifying finish, with violins duelling Dhol drums and Gabriel in the centre screaming Receive and transmit! You come away completely blown apart, having heard the best and scariest track on the album.

'The Drop' is the closer, and it's just as well that it's a solemn, quiet affair. With only a piano on his person, Gabriel half-croons, half-whispers this song about flying and the brevity of life. You picture yourself either in an aeroplane, looking down on city lights, or else lying on a bed surrounded by naked lights, steadily dimming until the silence becomes complete. The lyrics, brief as they are, dwell deep inside your head; you will be thinking about them for days until their personal meaning becomes clear.

For an album about death and the bleak nature of life, Up is not exactly a hackneyed suicide note or the musings of a sad old man. It's hardly Gabriel's most optimistic work, and so fans of his more commercial stuff will be unpleasantly surprised. For those, on the other hand, who like an album to slowly unwind and reveal itself according to how much attention you give it, this is an inspired work. Like Us, you will hear something new and interesting every time you play it, either all the way through or by sampling its component parts. Unfortunately, there are odd moments where Gabriel goes too far in his introspection, or where he forgets that what made him successful was the quality of his songs rather than any desire to be famous. But while Us occassionally flattered you with reassuring songs, Up is always egging you on, always pushing you deeper and further into the dark areas of your soul. It may take longer to fathom, it may even drive you round the twist - but you emerge at the other end more complete, more inspired, and more fulfilled.

4.00 out of 5

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