Us isn’t a grabber like So, the 1986 smash that put Peter Gabriel over the top with the video generation. Most of the tunes insinuate themselves, rather than screaming their arrival from the first note. In the end, the opaque melodies and exotic rhythms reward the patient listener, but not without a struggle.
Gabriel’s ninth solo release can be heard as a combination of its immediate predecessors: The Western firepower of So meets the Eastern earthiness of Passion, Gabriel’s 1989 soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. Not that Gabriel has completely buried his commercial side beneath layers of tablas, doudous, surdus and djembes. Always adept at crafting the odd pop trinket — “Games Without Frontiers,” “Shock the Monkey,” “Big Time” — Gabriel offers a trio of radio-friendly potboilers. The least satisfying is “Steam,” essentially Son of “Sledgehammer.” But “Digging in the Dirt” and “Kiss That Frog” are at once instantly engaging and subversive. In the turbulent “Digging.” Gabriel seethes, “This is for real,” like a viper in the midst of a lover’s quarrel, then in the next breath pleads for one more chance. “Kiss” gives a fairy-tale lyric a queasy twist and kicks it along with a scrappy guitar and roller-rink organ.
Using musicians from Armenia, Turkey, Kenya, Senegal, Russia and Egypt to supplement drummer Manu Katche, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Rhodes, Gabriel tries to create a new vocabulary for rock rhythm on the remaining tracks. Above Gabriel’s percolating tempos, the melodies unfold slowly or sometimes not at all, even though six of the ten cuts run longer than six minutes.
“Love to Be Loved,” “14 Black Paintings” and “Secret World” sound like music for Third World airports, little more than exercises in ambient atmosphere. And the otherwise beautiful “Come Talk to Me,” a duet with Sinead O’Connor, is burdened by reminders of Gabriel’s artsy genesis when he rasps, “The earthly power sucks shadowed milk from sleepy tears undone/From nippled skin as smooth as silk the bugles blown as one.”
With its wave upon wave of rhythmic innovation, Us hints at catharsis. Instead, this extended meditation on the frailty of love settles for a sobering nobility that matches — but does not transcend — its subject.