When Peter Gabriel resigned as frontman of Genesis two years ago, he said it was to search for the unexpected. On the evidence of his first solo album, he's found it. Instead of crystallizing an easily apprehensible musical identity, Gabriel has put together a grab bag collection of songs that bear little resemblance to one another. (The individual songs, too, are often schizophrenic patchworks of styles.) We can, however, draw some ready conclusions: he writes great melodies; he can still be weird when he wants; he likes dramatic orchestration and studio wizardry.
I prefer side one, because it's punchier and the melodies seem better integrated. "Moribund the Burgermeister" is the most dizzying, combining the muffled foreboding of David Essex's "Rock On" with playful synthesizer doodles, trollish vocals and orchestral outbursts. Cut to "Solsbury Hill," a superior, lilting soft-pop tune that conveys the album's most autobiographical message: "I was feeling part of the scenery/I walked right out of the machinery." Cut to the thundering "Modern Love," an exhilarating rocker that rates with the Stones' best. Cut to "Excuse Me," a barbershop oompah cousin to Randy Newman's work, with a chorus reminiscent of the Band. Cutto "Humdrum," opening as a hypnotic ballad as hushed as a falling raindrop, then snapping into a Caribbean tempo. Fella's deft with the lyrics, too: "Out of woman comes a man/Spends the rest of his life getting back in again."
Side two, on the other hand, is a little too rich for my ears. "Slowburn" is a heavy orchestral pastiche that shifts so fast and furiously it leaves me with heartburn. "Waiting for the Big One" is a languorous blues that is overlong at 7:26. "Down the Dolce Vita" leads off as a stirring, grand movie epic and rocks as adventurously as the Bengal Lancers, but ultimately it's a relief when the stately "Here Comes the Flood" sweeps it away.
The English have an expression for excess — "over the top" — which I think applies here on occasion. Gabriel's more symphonic tracks, some with five or more movements, are so complex they can become staggering. Sometimes, when a particularly lovely bit vanishes too quickly, one wishes his compositions would stop fidgeting. It's probably just restlessness bursting from an unusually ambitious artist, though, for this is an impressively rich debut album. And I still don't know what to expect from him next.