Peter Gabriel’s first solo album promised some sort of reconciliation between art rock and the rock mainstream: it had the sense of a breakthrough in negotiations between warring factions. Its two most direct hard-rock songs, “Modern Love” and “Solsbury Hill,” were among 1977’s most underrated.
Gabriel’s second solo LP (which has the same title, or lack of one, as his debut) makes similar gestures to the mainstream, yet focuses more often on the progressivism he helped pioneer as a founding member of Genesis. There are still some good rock numbers — “On the Air” and “D.I.Y.” most notably, as well as the kinky reggae song, “A Wonderful Day in a One-Way World” — but Gabriel, aided by producer Robert Fripp’s banks of crashing guitar chords and various electronics, has discarded most of the gloss of the first record for a personal vision that is darker, more frightening and not quite as accessible.
As a lyricist, Gabriel is forever given to indirection and opacity: an underlying theme parallels the war between the sexes and man’s war with the environment — or at least I think it does, since nothing is straightforward enough for certainty. As a composer, Gabriel displays similar meandering tendencies, and Fripp emphasizes these aspects. Given different arrangements, the melodies of almost any of these songs might easily be transferred into a pop context.
Clearly, I don’t find this Peter Gabriel as enticing as last year’s, but I certainly can’t dismiss it. If the prettiest moments are more difficult to listen to, the most difficult passages are easier to grasp. On the road to détente between progressive rock and whatever it is most of us care for, the new album seems an acceptable way station — encouraging enough to make tuning in for the next installment worthwhile, yet obtuse enough to make plain the difficulty of traveling this road.