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Peter Gabriel

    Peter Gabriel (Atco, 1977)
    Peter Gabriel (Atlantic, 1978)
     Peter Gabriel (Mercury, 1980)
     Security (Geffen, 1982)
    Plays Live (Geffen, 1983)
     Music from the Film "Birdy" (Geffen, 1985)
      So (Geffen, 1986)
     Passion: Music for "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Geffen, 1989)
      Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats (Geffen, 1990)
     Us (Geffen, 1992)
    Secret World Live (Real World/Geffen, 1994)
     Long Walk Home: Music from "Rabbit-Proof Fence" (Real World/Geffen, 2002)
    Up (Real World/Geffen, 2002)
     Hit (Geffen, 2003)

Over the course of his career, British rocker Peter Gabriel has metamorphosed from theatrical prog-rock cult artist to canny, multimedia pop star to worldly rock sage. It's been a dramatic change: Fans of sly, pop/funk singles like "Big Time" might actually find it hard to accept that their hero was also responsible for the baroque silliness that is "Moribund the Burgermeister."

Gabriel's first three solo albums—each entitled Peter Gabriel, although the remastered versions are helpfully numbered 1, 2, and 3—were experiments in reinvention. The first Peter Gabriel (the cover of which finds our hero half-hidden behind a wet windshield) arrived three years after his last studio recording with Genesis, 1974's arty, ambitious The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Between the flabby dramatics of "Moribund the Burgermeister" and the forced whimsy of "Excuse Me," it was clear that Gabriel without Genesis wasn't all that different from Gabriel with Genesis. Yet the folky economy of "Solsbury Hill" and the understated majesty of "Here Comes the Flood" clearly pushed toward something else—not mainstream pop, exactly, but something close.

The second Peter Gabriel (with the fingernails cover) moves closer to that new sound. Produced by King Crimson's Robert Fripp—himself a prog-rock star hoping to remake himself to fit a postpunk world—the album finds Gabriel trying to square his past with the (then) present. "D.I.Y.," his paean to self-produced punk, seems especially prescient in the post-Napster world, while the spare, abstract "Exposure" reveals an unexpected edge. Still, neither the Who-style pomp of "On the Air" nor the ham-fisted pathos of "Home Sweet Home" suggests that Gabriel was surrendering his old turf easily.

It's the third Peter Gabriel album (with the melting-face cover) that finally puts him on the proper path. Rather than being written on piano and having the ideas translated to band arrangements, the songs on this album were written using digital synthesis and drum loops. Suddenly, there's a new urgency to Gabriel's voice as he rides the rhythms of "Intruder" and "No Self Control," while the blissfully transcendent "Biko" and "Games Without Frontiers" hint at a pop future very different from the guitar-based world Gabriel came up in.

Security expands on those possibilities by adding world-music elements to the mix. Gabriel had already made moves toward African music in "Biko," which opened with a brief mbube chorale, but that bit of color is nowhere near as dramatic as the burst of percussion that the Ekome Dance Company provides in "The Rhythm of the Heat." It isn't simply exoticism that makes the song (or the similarly flavored "San Jacinto" and "The Family and the Fishing Net") so intriguing; it's the way Gabriel incorporates these rhythmic ideas into his melodic concepts, resulting in a kind of magic that's as applicable to the boisterously tuneful "Shock the Monkey" as the moody, mysterious "I Have the Touch."

Gabriel's internationalist musical strategy didn't translate particularly well to live performance, at least not by the evidence of Plays Live (although P.O.V., a 1990 concert video shot with a different band and repertoire, isn't quite so flat). But it does make excellent soundtrack source material. In fact, several selections on the all-instrumental Music From the Film "Birdy" are reworkings of tunes from Security and the third Peter Gabriel, transforming familiar melodies into emotionally evocative mood pieces.

With So, Gabriel finally figures out how to play these new tools as pop. Amazingly, he does so without compromising the ambition or adventurousness of his previous efforts. Although the hits "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" are pointedly funk-driven (and serve up a fair amount of sarcasm with their big-beat arrangements), the rest of the album shows how much Gabriel had gleaned from his world-music side project, the W.O.M.A.D. (World of Music, Arts, and Dance) Festival. There are allusions to Zimbabwean Shona mbira themes in Tony Levin's bassline for "Don't Give Up," and Senegalese mbalax singing (courtesy of Youssou N'Dour) spikes the final choruses to "In Your Eyes." Exotic touches, to be sure, but delivered in a context conventional enough to make them palatable to any pop fan.

Gabriel's second soundtrack album, Passion (composed for Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ), is similarly world-music savvy, though it draws more from the Middle East than Africa. Unlike Birdy, it feels more like a genuine film score, covering a range of styles (from Gabrielesque prog rock to quasi-symphonic tone poems), and suggests that there are depths to Gabriel that his pop work barely hints at.

Shaking the Tree, by contrast, makes no such moves in that direction, offering only a representation of his big hits augmented by a fresh collaboration with Youssou N'Dour (the title tune) and a new version of "Here Comes the Flood." Us, which followed, did its best to pick up where So left off, mixing sophis-ticated funk-pop ("Steam," "Kiss That Frog") with issue-oriented art rock. In this case, however, the issues were more personal, focusing more on psychosexual drama than on social issues, which lent the whole project the fruity air of postanalytic revelation instead of pop-culture inspiration. None of that was audible in Secret World Live, however, which made the pop content seem more like the white funk it wanted to be, while rendering the artier fare all the more indigestible.

That, sadly, seems to have been the high-water mark for Gabriel. Eight years passed before he finally released a new album, and that turned out to be another Birdy-like soundtrack, Long Walk Home (from the film Rabbit-Proof Fence). Taken on its own, it not only complements the film's vision of the Western Australian outback, but reduces many of the major themes from his subsequent "commercial" release, Up, to a far more potent essence. Up, on the other hand, manages to make several of Gabriel's stylistic habits—grandiloquent prog, slyly mannered funk—seem less like strengths than tics, and (worse) with the tabloid TV-bashing "Barrie Williams Show" turns his gift for satire into an embarrassing and slow-arriving statement of the obvious. We deserve better—and so does he.

After Up, Gabriel seems to have tried to make up for his slack productivity in the Nineties by releasing numerous new albums. Sadly, he's done so without producing much in the way of new music. The misleadingly titled Hit offers only one new song ("Burn You Up, Burn You Down") while recapping much of Up and rounding the disc out with middling rarities plus a sprinkling of actual hits. It's hardly an improvement on Shaking the Tree. Simultaneously, he has been releasing concert recordings online through the "Encore Series" (www.themusic.com). There were 21 released from his 2003 tour, and several dozen more from his 2004 and 2007 outings. It beats writing new songs, apparently.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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