Leaving Genesis after six albums, at the age of 25, Peter Gabriel’s solo career initially felt like an attempt to distance himself from his former band. It took him a couple of albums to find his feet, but his third self-titled album, known as Melt, established him as a innovative solo artist, and also revealed his interests in political activism, notably the closing track ‘Biko’. From there, Gabriel went from strength to strength, achieving a deserved commercial breakthrough with So in 1986. Following 1992’s excellent Us, his career has largely plateaued, with only one studio album at the time of writing, 2002’s worthy but flawed Up.
After appearing as quintessentially English in Genesis, Gabriel’s explored world music in his solo career, integrating it successfully into his own sound. His husky voice is a major asset, and even if he’s not a technically impressive musician, he’s a skilled arranger and producer.
I’ve covered all of his studio albums to date, but I’ve skipped over a couple of soundtracks – 1985’s Birdy, which is partly instrumental reworkings of previous songs, and 2002’s Long Walk Home.
Peter Gabriel Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Peter Gabriel (Melt)
Overlooked Gem: Us
Peter Gabriel (Car)
No doubt anxious to establish his distinct identity apart from Genesis, Gabriel takes on a bewildering pastiche of styles on his solo debut. Due to this it’s difficult to make generalisations about this record because of its scattershot nature – it definitely has its moments, but as a whole it’s tentative and uncertain. American producer Bob Ezrin adds a radio friendly sheen, which confuses matters even more – the album veers between vying for mainstream acceptance and more self-consciously complex material.
The best tracks are those that stick closest to 1970’s Genesis; the opening progressive rock of ‘Moribund The Burgermeister’ showcases Gabriel’s theatrics, and the biographical ‘Solsbury Hill’ (with Robert Fripp’s ending guitar pyrotechnics) recalls Genesis’ acoustic tendencies. The closing epic ‘Here Comes The Flood’ is in similar territory, although its grandiose arrangement recalls Queen more than Genesis. On the opposite end of the scale, the texturally driven, low-key ‘Humdrum’ is the best precursor for Gabriel’s subsequent solo path. In between these high points, there are some less successful genre experiments; ‘Waiting For The Big One’ is the worst offender, featuring an irritating blues riff endlessly repeated, while the barbershop quartet on ‘Excuse Me’ is a bizarre choice.
In Genesis Gabriel often wrote in allegory, and relied on his band-mates for musical support; as a solo artist his debut finds him shakily finding his own feet and personal voice. There are individual gems like ‘Moribund The Burgermeister’ and ‘Here Comes The Flood’, but Gabriel doesn’t sustain excellence for an entire album.
Peter Gabriel (Scratch)
Scratch continues an indecisive beginning to Peter Gabriel’s solo career. Instead of every song shooting off in a different direction like the debut, this sophomore album tends towards anonymous faceless rock. Despite the contributions of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, who produces and plays guitar, and bassist Tony Levin, both idiosyncratic virtuosos who you’d expect to add personality to the project, Scratchoften sounds like a mainstream late 1970’s rock album. Fripp insisted of a fast recording process, at odds with Gabriel’s usually meticulous approach, while Gabriel’s vocals are also unusual – his voice is low in the mix and harsher than usual.
Scratch has its moments; the pair of opening singles are both strong, and largely forgotten from the Gabriel catalogue; ‘On The Air’ uses a Who-like synth loop and crashing guitars, while ‘D.I.Y.’ has a great bass riff. ‘White Shadow’ is easily my favourite song here; the mainstream rock sound actually helps the song, with haunting synthesizer tones, dramatic piano punctuation, and a memorable guitar riff in the chorus. It’s noticeably more intricate than most of the other material, and could almost have fitted on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The other great song here is ‘Exposure’, built around Fripp’s soundscapes and a memorable Levin bass-line – it’s weird and inventive in a way that most of these other songs aren’t. Elsewhere, songs like ‘Indigo’ could have been interesting with better arrangements, but tend towards generic under the unhelpful arrangements and production.
Gabriel would find a more compelling direction with his next album, rescuing a career that was quickly sliding into irrelevance.
Peter Gabriel (Melt)
Melt still sounds edgy and vital. While the cast of musicians is largely similar to before, enlisting hot young U2 producer Steve Lillywhite and arranging cameos from young stars Paul Weller and Kate Bush push Gabriel into the forefront of popular music. His sound palate has shifted markedly from the previous record; there are harder guitars in ‘No Self Control’ and ‘And Through The Wire’, and a more minimalist aesthetic on other tracks like ‘Lead A Normal Life’ and ‘Start’. Even more pronounced is the emphasis on rhythm; instead of the world music influence that would dominate his later work, it’s just innovative drumming and drum machine programming. This album pioneered the gated reverb sound and the use of a cymbal-less drum kit; a device that would soon be overused, but which sounds fresh and terrific on these arty tracks. For music that’s so totally immersed in synthesisers and drum machines, Melt holds up surprisingly well today, and while his lyrics were mostly aimless on the first two albums, here he hooks into much more interesting themes.
The gated reverb on Phil Collins’ drum kit announces the first track, ‘Intruder’, setting the album’s tone of paranoia and isolation with its creepy, rhythmic attack and dark lyrics (“I like you lying awake/Your bated breath charging the air”). ‘No Self-Control’ and ‘I Don’t Remember’ raise the intensity even further, with heavy guitars and Gabriel’s vocals almost unhinged. The two key tracks depart from the theme of personal paranoia – ‘Family Snapshot’ takes the character of an assassin desperate for attention, and even though it’s piano-based like much of the previous album, it’s emotionally charged and makes use of space and atmosphere much more effectively. ‘Biko’ shows the first influence of world music on a Peter Gabriel record, and its minimal lyrics document Stephen Biko’s cause more effectively than a verbose writer would. Bush appears on the single ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and it’s another winner with its off-kilter feel, abstract lyrics and whistling. All the second tier tracks are effective – the brief instrumental ‘Start’ is a key part of the album’s flow, ‘And Through The Wire’ rocks, while the minimalism of ‘Lead A Normal Life’ is mournful and affecting.
Melt is a landmark release, finally giving Gabriel’s career some direction and establishing a new masterpiece in his canon, one that’s as strong as his best work in Genesis but completely different in character.
Peter Gabriel (Security)
Gabriel takes the innovations of Melt further on his followup effort. While Melt had a largely rock feel, with loud guitars and faster tempos, Security is sedate, with half of the songs running past six minutes and dominated by slowly shifting textures and heavy use of synthesizers. With the long running times, and reliance on synthesizers, Security can be a hard album to take; some of the tracks have a long build up for a relatively short climax, as both ‘The Rhythm Of The Heat’ and ‘Wallflower’ build slowly to rhythmic punches that only kick in for their final sections. Regardless, Security is easily one of Gabriel’s most intriguing records; the long running times allow him time to explore his ideas fully and at least half of these eight tracks rank alongside his very best.
Namely, ‘San Jacinto’ tells the story of an Native American rite of passage, drawing parallels with the decline of the civilization as its absorbed by modern culture, slowly building ominous synthesisers, then breaking into cathartic guitars. Opener ‘The Rhythm Of The Heat’ is brilliantly titled, and the music lives up to that with a trance like buildup and sudden release. ‘I Have The Touch’ is punchy and direct with rhythmic, brash lyrics (“I’m waiting for ignition, I’m looking for a spark/Any chance collision and I light up in the dark”). Best of all, ‘Wallflower’, dedicated to a political prisoner, shares the same kind of emotional territory that ‘Don’t Give Up’ murders on the next album, but here it’s an absolute winner with Gabriel repeating the phrase “hold on” while his voice croaks endearing, and hitting a moment of transcendence with the gorgeous synth melody just before the drums kick in. Of the other upbeat songs, ‘Shock The Monkey’ is a nice enough single but ‘Kiss Of Life’ suffers from the synthetic arrangements in a way that the other songs don’t and would have benefited from a more organic treatment. I wouldn’t begin a musical acquaintance with Gabriel through Security – it’s dense and slow moving – but this is some of his most in-depth and interesting material, and any serious fan who doesn’t mind large helpings of eighties synth is going to lap it up.
Gabriel followed his former band-mates from Genesis to mainstream success with 1986’s So, his most popular and commercially oriented album; signs of his new direction include an actual album title, extravagant music videos (‘Sledgehammer’) and a smoldering portrait shot on the front sleeve.
These songs are simpler and more direct than before; there’s material like the straightforward love song ‘In Your Eyes’ and the faux-Motown groove of ‘Sledgehammer’, showing Gabriel’s ability to write effective pop songs. Opener ‘Red Rain’ strikes a balance between artiness and accessibility, and ‘Big Time’ is an interesting commentary on 1980s values. Among the album tracks ‘Mercy Street’ is beautiful and ‘That Voice Again’ is driving and urgent. More problematic is ‘Don’t Give Up’ a sappy, overwrought duet with Kate Bush, while the record as a whole feels disjointed with a marked contrast between the up-tempo singles and the moodier album tracks.
For better or worse, So is the Gabriel album that the general public are most acquainted with – while he’s made stronger records, there’s plenty of substance here.
Passion: Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ
Passion is the soundtrack from the Martin Scorcese film The Last Temptation Of Christ. While Gabriel had dabbled in world music previously, this is his first full excursion, rooted in North African sounds, but using musicians from as far away as Ghana, India and New Guinea, and helping the careers of vocalists Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Youssou N’Dour. There’s plenty of musical input from Gabriel himself; while he rarely uses his voice, he’s playing percussion, bass and keyboard parts, and it’s the subtle collision of Western and African musical values that makes the record’s musical palette compelling.
While there are a few tracks that don’t do much more than make spooky background noises, there are plenty of truly memorable parts that make this one of Gabriel’s stronger albums, including the haunting flute in ‘Of These Hope’, the building tension of ‘The Feeling Begins’ and the piano melody of ‘It Is Accomplished’. The pretty ‘With This Love’ sounds like it comes from a Western church tradition, a link which the choral reprise reiterates. And a couple of the pieces rank alongside Gabriel’s best songs – the dramatic violin of ‘Zaar’ (based on a traditional Egyptian rhythm that was used to ward off evil spirits) and the majestic ‘A Different Drum’, where Gabriel’s voice soars after escalating tension from the percussion loops and Youssou N’Dour’s vocals.
Although it’s a soundtrack, Passion is an essential part of Gabriel’s discography.
Shaking The Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats
1990, not rated
Gabriel’s an album artist, and you should grab the original albums, but the non-album tracks on this compilation – the solo piano remake of ‘Here Comes The Flood’ and the title track – are well worth hearing.
Peter Gabriel’s solo output slowed considerably since the early 1980s; it took him six years to follow So with Us, while Us‘ successor Up took a further ten years. Gabriel’s painstaking efforts are fully justified in the results of Us, with evidence in its tight construction and many layers of sound. Us is Gabriel’s divorce album, so there’s a strong emotional undercurrent; there’s an inherent pain and loneliness to ‘Come Talk to Me’ and ‘Love to be Loved’, captured by Gabriel’s expressive voice. Parallels with Adam and Eve haunt ‘Blood of Eden’ and ‘Secret World’, while a Biblical image of cleansing is referred to in ‘Washing of the Water’.
Gabriel also doesn’t neglect to provide accessible entry points to Us; ‘Steam’ is the obvious single, driven by Levin’s bass line, but ‘Digging in the Dirt’ and the phallic ‘Kiss that Frog’ are also upbeat and catchy. Us is a coherent album with a consistent ambient world beat atmosphere, although there’s ample variation in the form of the upbeat material and the country flavoured ‘Washing of the Water’. Other highlights include the gorgeous ‘Blood of Eden’ and the satisfying closer ‘Secret World’. The only real fault with Us is that some of the material is a little uninteresting: ‘Fourteen Black Paintings’ and ‘Love To Be Loved’ have nice atmosphere, but don’t justify their long running times as well as the rest of the songs do.
Despite these Us is an immensely fulfilling album, and ranks as Gabriel’s most under-rated effort.
2000, not yet rated
Collating this page has made me realise that this is the major gap in my Gabriel discography, so I’m reserving a space for it.
On his 21st century studio albums, it feels like Gabriel’s allowed his perfectionist tendencies overwhelm him – the title Up was announced in 1998, but the album didn’t emerge until four years later, ten years after Us. The material was obsessively reworked and selected from 150 songs that Gabriel had in various stages of recording. While the album shows plenty of craftsmanship, it’s essentially a bunch of seven minute songs that often outstay their welcome, and it can be hard to sit through in its entirety.
The first two songs are strong – ‘Darkness’ explodes out of the speakers full of foreboding and atmosphere, while ‘Growing Up’ is the most accessible pop song, with its “my ghost likes to travel” hook. Up also ends strongly; ‘Signal To Noise’ is the most ambitious piece with its chanting (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was overdubbed posthumously) while the brief ‘The Drop’ is a pretty solo piano piece that closes proceedings nicely. In between, there’s a single that felt dated on arrival with the ‘The Barry Williams Show’ and a smattering of moody pieces.
Up is painstaking, and it certainly has its merits – but you need to be a dedicated Peter Gabriel fan to enjoy it.
Ten Favourite Peter Gabriel Songs
In Your Eyes
A Different Drum
Blood Of Eden
Signal To Noise