Read my reviews of albums by Peter Gabriel, the former lead singer of Genesis:
1977: Peter Gabriel [Car] (6/10)
With hindsight, it feels like Gabriel had yet to really figure out who he wanted to be on his debut album. There are songs that sound a little sub-Genesis and then there are songs that sound like he is positioning himself as a sort of sub-David Bowie. Then there are tracks that sound sort of like the late ’70s/early ’80s Peter Gabriel in utero. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge.
And there are missed opportunities to me. Robert Fripp is here but you can’t hear him. When he’s playing, he sure doesn’t sound like Robert Fripp. And Larry Fast is here too and doesn’t really make as much of an impact as he would on later records. And then there’s Ezrin just piling on the overdubs. (For example: “Here Comes the Flood” is way, way better on Exposure than it is here, all thanks to Ezrin’s desire to turn Peter Gabriel into the big rock bombast artist he always wants to turn everyone into.)
But I still like a bunch of the songs.
1978: Peter Gabriel [Scratch] (7/10)
Because of the nature of the collaboration – my favourite guitarist, Robert Fripp, produced this record – I had sort of viewed this record as the holy grail of early Peter Gabriel records, in spite of the lukewarm reviews. I had just assumed that, whenever I got to it, I would discover this incredible mixture of Gabriel’s songwriting and Fripp being Fripp. But, much like other Fripp appearances on Gabriel records, Fripp is rarely noticeable as Fripp (except for on “Exposure”). And, more importantly, much like Gabriel’s debut record, it’s pretty clear that he, Gabriel, hadn’t quite figured out what he wanted to be as a solo artist.
It’s certainly more consistent than the debut, as he attempts less stylistic diversity and what he tries he does more successfully (more often than not) than on the first record.
But this is still not the greatest set of songs by a long shot – Gabriel would improve as a songwriter by even the next record – and he still hasn’t found that sweet spot where he manages to combine strong-songwriting with the right balance of musical innovation and weirdness.
It is well-performed, as you would expect (check out the backing band) and I guess it has enough quirks to keep things relatively interesting. But I don’t find it very memorable and, frankly, I’d rather listen to Fripp’s solo album he released around the same time (on which Gabriel guest stars).
1980: Peter Gabriel [Melt] (9/10)
On December 31, 2008, I wrote the following:
This may sound stupid, but this sounds little too much like 1980. They had a good thing going, those Genesis guys…and while I know that version of the band could never have topped The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, neither Gabriel nor the rest of the band ever demonstrated that kind of creativity again. That being said, this record is fine. There are some fine moments. However, the “world music” feels almost flown in compared to everything else. Both Bowie and the Discipline version of Crimson do aspects of this better. I will probably like it more in time. but it just seems somewhat underwhelming at this point.
I continue to struggle with this record, but not so much because of the production. I now recognize the production for what it is: extremely innovative for the time – the cymbal-less drums, the gated drums, the early use of drum machines and brand new synthesizers, the use of world music instruments and ideas in the arrangements. Saying this is “too much like 1980” was kind of disingenuous of me, because the 1980s owes this record so much.
My problem is more with the set of songs. I like some of the lyrics but I dislike others. I find most of the songs feel almost pieced together – which may have been the point – where a chorus or a bridge feels completely (or nearly) divorced from a verse. And that, masked in the overly “modernist” production always rubbed me the wrong way enough for me to ignore the things I did like: the presence of Fripp, the bonkers xylophone solo on “Intruder” – and the marimbas, credited as xylophone but certainly they sound like wood, on “No Self Control” – and other tricks.
Really, the whole things is so shocking/daring for mainstream pop music. But the combination of Gabriel not sounding like (1974 era) Genesis and writing catchy songs that were weird but somehow both too weird and not weird enough for me really caused me to denigrate this a little.
And I think I’ve been really wrong about that for the last seven and a half years. It took me a really long time, but I think I’ve come around to the idea that this is a brave, bold, innovative record – a near masterpiece that would have been better only if it didn’t have that terrible ’80s saxophone – which it likely birthed as well – on “Start.” (I exaggerate slightly.)
I was wrong. I’m sorry.
1982: Peter Gabriel [Security] (???)
It seems impossible to me that I’ve never listened to Security but apparently I haven’t.
1985: Music by Peter Gabriel from the Film Birdy (???)
I have never heard this soundtrack nor seen the film. Read my reviews of music from 1985.
1986: So (7/10)
I haven’t gotten into solo Gabriel yet really, this is only the third album of his that I’ve heard. But back when I was a Gabriel-era Genesis obsessive I listened to a lot of Gabriel-fronted music. I have always been a little wary of his solo music in part because it is so clearly different from his music with Genesis, even the earlier albums. That being said, I don’t mind his late ’70s stuff, at least that which I’ve heard. But I have some real qualms about this album: it is a very clear attempt to sell more records. That isn’t always a bad thing – though it often is – and I think in this case it is executed reasonably well, for the time, but it just doesn’t float my boat.
Even though I was a little young, I think “In Your Eyes” has a real resonance for people slightly older than myself but much of the rest album doesn’t have that resonance. It’s also pretty scatter-shot stylistically which, in this case, does not feel like a virtue.
But the worst thing of all is the “It’s 1986!!!” production. I know that’s a fault of the vast majority of pop music from this era, but there are few things I hate more than mid- and late-’80s mainstream pop rock production. At least Gabriel brings in his token world music touches – and I have always felt this influence has been overstated – so they make it a little less horrible. But I would love to hear what this album would sound like had it been recorded in, say, 1979, not 1986.
That being said it’s all quite catchy, competent and way more creative than the average pop rock record. But it’s just not my thing.
1989: Passion (Music for The Last Temptation of Christ) (7/10)
I loved this soundtrack as a teen. Or maybe I loved the idea of this soundtrack: a “popstar’ (so I pictured Gabriel at the time) making a world music soundtrack to a “controversial” movie (of course the only people who find this stuff controversial are the kind of people who find swearing controversial). I probably thought it was very daring and very “artistic.”
Over a decade later and having not seen the movie again in the interim I have to say it’s more than a little underwhelming. The two biggest problems are the ’80s production (especially on Cobham’s drums, yikes) and the desire by Gabriel to use synthesizers rather than say finding yet more musicians to play some drones on their instruments. It’s not a bad soundtrack, by any means – especially given that it is by a man more known for his videos – and I think it has proved very influential, since a hell of a lot of Hollywood films no employ the vaguely eastern wailing (either vocal or synthetic), but it has definitely dated.
Bonus: Various Artists: Passion – Sources (7/10)
On the one hand, this is a fine collection of “world” music, featuring all sorts of interesting pieces from different cultures. Moreover, it was released in connection to an “event” Hollywood film, meaning that this type of music got unprecedented exposure.
On the other hand, like all or at least most “world” music compilations, this compiles a bunch of un- or somewhat-related musical traditions and passes them off as one thing. Someone like me, interested in the history of music almost as much as the act of listening to music, is given no context for these performances. Worse, Gabriel cut some of these and overdubbed others, meaning that we don’t even get the actual performances. It’s like he didn’t trust us (and maybe CDs couldn’t handle the lengths). This is a bit like the Godzilla to the originals’ Gojira.
I get that Gabriel curated this, and these are the performances that inspired his score, and so it’s his right to jump around like this; it’s a personal statement about his musical interests rather than some kind of authoritative statement about Middle Eastern and North African (and Indian???) music. And so I guess that’s why I’m being a little kinder than I’m inclined as it drives me nuts when westerners meddle with non-western cultural artifacts because the western audience supposedly cannot handle the original versions.
1992: Peter Gabriel: Us (???)
I have never listened to any of Gabriel’s ’90s work. Read my reviews of music from 1992.
1998: Snowflake (???) with Akiko Yano, Akira Inoue, David Rhodes
2000: OVO (???)
I have never listened to most of Gabriel’s 21st century music, with a few exceptions you’ll find below. Read my reviews of albums released in 2000.
Peter Gabriel albums from 2002:
Long Walk Home: Music from Rabbit Proof Fence (???)
I generally avoid scores and soundtracks unless I have a strong reason to listen to them (like I enjoyed the music while watching the film).
2010: Scratch My Back (8/10)
When I was young, I had a problem with interpretive music; for my idealistic self it suggested a lack of creativity, a lack of artistic will, or something like that. (I definitely had a bit of an obsession with the idea of The Artist as a True Individual or some shit.) Over the years my position has markedly changed, but I do know why I felt that way: too many covers in pop rock are ‘straight-up’, i.e. the songs are clearly recognizable as as the originals and the artist has re-used the original arrangement, tempo, production etc. One of the things that first attracted me to jazz was how jazz artists were expected to be different every time out. (This is also a little frustrating in the “classical” music world where most of the industry is focused on replicating older performances of works or trying to recreate the “original intentions” of a particular composer.)
But I have come to believe that covers can be truly great. It doesn’t matter whether or not the performer wrote the song really, it’s what they do with it. Yes, most covers blow donkey balls, but there are great ones. And it follows that there can be great cover albums. (One critic called this “classy karaoke”, which suggests that cover albums are always inferior to music that is original. I beg to differ: I would rather listen to a great cover album than most 2013 Top 40 pop, for example.)
I’m not sure I would put this record in the very top tier of cover albums, as I
- haven’t heard enough of them and
- think Fantomas’ The Director’s Cut is on another planet from most of the ones I have heard.
But this is still incredible stuff. I suspect the reason it has been rated so poorly is because people don’t like Gabriel’s interpretations; because these interpretations are too different. But, folks, that’s why it’s good.
His cover of “Heroes” is absolutely incredible – a complete rethinking of the song – and unfortunately it sets up the rest of the album as a bit of disappointment after that strong start. But I would rank his covers of “Listening Wind” and “Street Spirit” as among the best covers I’ve heard. (His version of “Heroes” would also be on that list.) The rest of the album is still solid. For example, I really don’t like Paul Simon – to clarify I find him okay but very, very overrated – but I really like Gabriel’s version of “The Boy in the Bubble.” Anyone who can make me like Paul Simon is doing something right.
As an aside, these takes are even more radical than the orchestral versions of his own songs he would release a year later. And despite the consensus that New Blood is a better record, I prefer this one. I’d rather have my preconceptions challenged.
My #5 album from 2010 because I haven’t listened to enough music from then. Read my reviews of 2010 albums.
Peter Gabriel albums from 2011:
Half Blood (???)
I have no idea what this is and had trouble figuring out what it was.
New Blood (8/10)
I have always struggled with getting into post-Genesis Gabriel because his music has often struck me as over-produced. But here I finally feel like his songwriting has received the the proper, appropriate arranging and production.
This is a great way at looking back at one’s career: Some of the new versions are really radical – some of them not so much – and almost all are interesting, many improving greatly on the originals. (“Solsbury Hill” is probably the only one I’m ‘meh’ on at the moment)
It’s a shame more of the artists who insist on reviving old music don’t do so in such an interesting way. (It’s not like he’s Scott Walker or anything, but these arrangements are still really strong for pop music.)
This album transcends Gabriel’s career; you don’t have to be a fan of him or a fan of these songs to like this. He has finally found a setting in which his music doesn’t carry a gigantic sign on it “This was recorded in…” and that’s a great thing.
Somehow my #4 album of 2011. Read my reviews of albums released in 2011.
2013: Various Artists: I’ll Scratch Yours (6/10)
Note: This is a tribute to Peter Gabriel that he organized (but doesn’t play on) as part of Scratch My Back but I’ve included it here because it seems relevant.’ as part of Scratch My Back but I’ve included it here because it seems relevant.
I quite enjoy Scratch My Back and love New Blood but, for some reason, it took me years to get around to listening tot he other half of Scratch My Back. But the thing I love about New Blood doesn’t really apply to this project (or Scratch My Back either, really, even though they sound the same). Regardless, given that I write about covers for fun, I am pretty open to this kind of thing.
The Byrne cover is alright – very David Byrne-ish but still similar enough that you can recognize the track.
I quite like the Bon Iver cover, even though I am not really a fan of Bon Iver. (I’ve barely listened to his studio music but I’ve seen him live a bunch and I feel like he’s more engaging live.)
I also think the Regina Spektor cover works pretty well.
I don’t know anything about the Magnetic Fields but the Merritt cover feels entirely too ’80s to me. One of the appealing things about the Gabriel covers (especially of his own stuff) is how he finally moved away from his production style. The last thing I really want to hear in a Peter Gabriel cover is something that tries to sound more ’80s than the original.
The Arthur cover is really different and interesting. This has never been a song I particularly liked but this cover forces me to listen to it in a completely new way.
The Newman cover feels to me like a great idea on paper that doesn’t quite work as well as it should. If there was ever a Gabriel song Randy Newman should cover, it’s this one. Perhaps it just shows that Gabriel doesn’t do this well compared to Newman.
I agree with the consensus that the Arcade Fire cover is dull. Worse, Butler sounds like he’s imitating Gabriel at times which is…like why would you do that? Peter Gabriel is an incredible singer, don’t bother.
I sort of feel the same way about the vocals in the Elbow cover. I don’t know Elbow, so maybe this just how he sounds, but it doesn’t feel too close to the original. But the rest of it is not bad.
Frequent Gabriel collaborator Brian Eno has an idiosyncratic approach to his cover. I’m not sure how well it works in part because this is a song I don’t know well. I seem to have kind of ignored it when I listen to that album. At least it draws attention to itself.
I don’t like the Feist/Timbre Timbre cover particularly. It’s super sedate. At times it feels like they tried to make it a lullaby.
The Reed cover appears to be the most divisive thing here with good reason. He leans even more into his sound than on his amazing “This Magic Moment” cover from the 1990s. Sometimes it feels like he’s taking the piss. And if you feel that way, I can see why you’d hate it. But I do think it’s sincere and I think it’s interesting, certainly one of the most interesting covers here (if not the most interesting). I’m not 100% sold on it yet, but it is growing on me.
Paul Simon is the most obvious person for “Biko” but he is pretty restrained with it. I actually like it more than a lot of the stuff here and far more than I was expecting, given that I don’t like Paul Simon.
Like so many cover albums performed by more than one artist, it’s fairly hit or miss (more like hit or meh) but are more good ones than bad ones, in my estimation.