It’s a rare moment when an artist takes his established, even iconic work and makes it still stronger, but Peter Gabriel’s live two-CD set Secret World Live is just such a moment. Recorded in Modena, Italy, during a January 1994 performance on his Secret World tour, the album and the concurrent video release bring songs threaded together by the images of earth and water into a cycle that explores relationships between men and women. The result is tantamount to a religious rite, merging grandeur with the intimacy of feeling, the public with the secret.
Gabriel draws most heavily from the songs on his most recent studio album, Us (1992), assuming the emotionally ambitious task of reaching the places found deep within intimate relationships. “Come Talk to Me,” a plea to bridge a widening gap of misunderstanding, establishes the urgent passion of Secret World. The ethereal introduction of “Steam” gives way to the song’s sinuous, powerful energy. Peter Gabriel’s veteran band — including bassist Tony Levin, drummer Manu Katche and guitarist David Rhodes — lays relentless grooves for “Shaking the Tree,” “Red Rain” and “Solsbury Hill,” the originals slowed and deepened into an emphatic swing that is exuberant as well as majestic. Yet bitter despair runs through “Blood of Eden”: “I can hear the distant thunder/Of a million unheard souls/Watch each one reach for creature comfort/For the filling of their holes.”
The prayerful “Washing of the Water” seeks to purge the taint of broken love: “In the washing of the water, will you take it all away/Bring me something to take this pain away.” “Digging in the Dirt” captures the in-your-face fury and the wounded vulnerability of an argument and suggests the eroticism of such passion as it bursts into the sexual fire of “Sledgehammer.” Transcending the heat of “Dirt” and “Sledgehammer,” Secret World arrives at sober grief, posing the wrenching, solitary question “In all the places we were hiding love/What was it we were thinking of?” and finds no answer but only the response: “With no guilt and no shame, no sorrow or blame/ Whatever it is, we are all the same.”
“Don’t Give Up” contrasts Gabriel’s male persona — bearing the unbearable weight of identity and success — with a feminine voice, which offers a reminder that help is present and offsets that consuming tension. And “In Your Eyes” is a jubilant paean that takes abandon to an epic level. In the wake of questions, pleas, anger and sexuality, the song affirms a love that is innocent but not naive, substantial but not heavy.
More than Gabriel’s Plays Live (1983), this album maintains a powerful continuity that loses neither pace nor momentum; more than the studio originals, these versions elaborate on the dramatic potential inherent in them — the heat and magnitude of rhythm, the human/animal ambiguity of an otherworldly cry. Secret World enters an inner realm that is knowable only through the range of emotion it gives rise to, joining ecstasy and agony into music that avoids being larger than life and instead is as large as life itself.