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Up
Artist: Peter Gabriel
Label: Interscope
length: 10 Tracks 

Up is a very strange title for this, Peter Gabriel's first solo album since 1992's Us. The album is far more interested in carrying us down, down, down into some of the darkest reaches of human experience.

Gabriel has always been interested in darkness. Something he said back in the late 80s has stuck with me (I wish I had the exact quote handy): His mission as an artist is to travel into the darkest places and affirm that light can be found there. Albums like Melt with its opening-track exploration of a predator called "Intruder," and Security with its editorial comments on war games and cruelty, have indeed given us more chills than thrills. But the light has always broken through, in some form or another. In "Solbury Hill" and "In Your Eyes" there was the voice and the heat emanating from the spiritual realms, calling up dreamers, inspiring messiahs and visionaries. Even in the darkest and saddest journeys, like Anne Sexton's lament on a black sea called "Mercy Street", there has always been the comfort of "Daddy's arms" awaiting.

He has also been interested in the possibilities of sound. His interests have taken him throughout the world searching for rhythms and distinct instruments, a study that resulted in the formation of RealWorld Studios, a label that has given a home and high visibility to artists all around the world. Regarding his own work, these endeavors culminated in Passion, a composition that fused music from nine different countries into one of the most powerful and complex expressions of Jesus Christ's sufferings that you are ever likely to hear. (I value it as recording that means most to me in my whole collection.)

Thus, music fans who know Gabriel's work know that each new solo album offers them a surreal journey, in which there are ponderous paths to great heights and, usually, a satirical tangent or two, where Gabriel exposes a love of wordplay and innuendo. ("Sledgehammer" remains the uncontested, reigning champion of innuendo-laden pop songs.) His love songs work on levels both personal and cultural. His satires are funny and sharp, without being mean-spirited. And a love of mythology and religion enriches anthems like "Blood of Eden."

It has been ten years... TEN YEARS... since Gabriel's last solo album. Now that his most laboriously crafted album has arrived, is it a career-capping masterpiece? One one hand, probably not, but on the other hand, that's a ridiculous question. Gabriel's works are always exploring different territories, so it is difficult and somewhat unrewarding to compare them.

Up is a sprawling, patient, slow-moving work full of songs that take more than six minutes to unfold. They are poetic, they address elemental, universal questions, and they sound as complex and gorgeous as we've come to expect. You won't hear many records that are more musically intoxicating all year.

But they also, surprisingly, fail to break new ground for Gabriel's sonic explorations. You could find a comfortable home for any one of these songs on one of his previous albums. At times, the resemblances are almost too much, as "No Way Out" borrows the anthemic tones of "Red Rain" and "I Grieve" echoes the spooky sea of "Mercy Street." The album sounds more like an earlier work, avoiding easy pop hooks in favor of deep-digging art-rock. Imagine the music of 1986's if it had a lot of twisted electronica and hip-hop beats scratching and sliding through it. Throw in a dose of the melancholy piano of "Here Comes the Flood," and you've just about got the sound of _Up_. 

For most Gabriel fans, this will not be a problem. Who cares if Up sounds familiar? The fact remains that nobody creates soundscapes like Peter Gabriel. When you go there, you are on a very high mountain indeed.

What I do find troubling about the album is its surprising lack of uplift. Songs explore fear, dying, the grieving process, and what might wait for us in the Great Beyond. In spite of his explorations, this may be the only Peter Gabriel album in which he navigates the darkness and never quite finds direction or light. There is much to be said for an artist who can voice a question powerfully, and he certainly does. The problem is that he seems to *think* he is offering hope, but his affirmations are feeble. We get too many empty platitudes and sentimental assurances like "It's all right" and "They say life carries on" and "There's more than this... beyond the stars." I'd expect lyrics like that from Celine Dion, but Peter Gabriel? 

He sets the stage for this troubling play by admitting a fear of the unknown. "Darkness" is the most unsettling opener since "Intruder" crawled out of the darkness on the album called 'Melt." It's a growling monster of a track that melts into the album's first unsatisfying therapy session. First, we face our fears:

I'm afraid of what I do not know 
I hate being undermined
I'm afraid I can be devil man
And I'm scared to be divine
Don't mess with me
My fuse is short
Beneath this skin these fragments caught 
He's trying to get some sense of what lies beyond, unseen, and knows it has something to do with the essences of good and evil, God and the devil. He knows he is not one or the other, but a mix of the two. It's a mystery that haunts him. 

And yet, he is not totally incapacitated by his fears: 

When I allow it to be
There's no control over me
I have my fears
But they do not have me 
A pleasant assertion. But what gives him this epiphany and this triumph?

In "Growing Up," he traces life from the womb to the grave and beyond. Clearly, he's trying to set up death as just another stage in evolotion, or perhaps better, metamorphosis. He declares in the high-stepping refrain, "My ghosts like to travel!" But in this paradigm, life becomes merely an endless series of changes and transformations from one stage to the next. Death is just another step ... a bittersweet departure from this life and on to the next: 

The breathing stops, I don't know when
In transition once again
Such a struggle getting through these changes
And it all seems so absurd 
To be flying like a bird
When I do not feel I've really landed here.
The melancholy journey continues in "Sky Blue," which sounds great with its layers of piano, chorus, and rhythms, but is also full of vague lines like "I sing through the land, the land sings through me … reaching into the deepest shade of sky blue." 

And the ongoing, unsatisfying metamorphosis of life continues as well:

So tired of all this traveling
So many miles away from home
I keep moving to be stable
Free to wander, free to roam 
It begs the question: What is home? If life is just a continual journey, then why talk of an origin or a destination? 

Then comes one of the more intriguing lyrics:

I can hear the same voice calling crying out,
From my heart and that cry,
What a cry what a cry it's going to be
If I can stop to let it out, oh.
What is this voice? Is it his spirit? Or is the spirit calling to him? The album is full of hints that there is something more, something tying us to a higher purpose, a deeper journey. That's more than 99% of rock songs care to consider. But what is that journey moving toward, or away from?

The beauty of the music supporting these lyrics is buoyed by a chorus of voices that include the "lived-in" tones of the Blind Boys of Alabama. The motif that keeps repeating in the song's over-long finale is borrowed from Gabriel's recent soundtrack work for the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. These voices are awe-inspiring, but they haven't been earned. We're not sure exactly what all this soulful emoting is about.

"No Way Out" is, for this listener, the album's most complete and exciting song. It moves from a shuffling jazz riff to mournful piano passages, and then on up to the sort of resounding rhythms and echoing tones of "Red Rain." It's a gorgeous, ambitious combination that shouldn't work, but does. Still, the ponderous subject-the slow death of an injured man, and the distress of the onlookers-makes us long for some kind of resolution or hope. The song captures that anxiety, fear, and the feelings of helplessness. The title may indicate the inevitability of death, but, as it is sung in a chilling final line of the song, it may also indicate that this poor man's spirit can find no way out of the constant cycle of life and death. A sobering and bleak perspective indeed.

One passage in particular stands out as the album's strongest example of Gabriel's lyrical gift--a beautiful image of life's fragility:

The colour in your shirt is darkening,
Against the paleness of your skin
I remember how you held the goldfish
Swimming around in a plastic bag
Swimming around in a plastic bag
You held it up so high
In the bright lights of the fair
It slipped and fell
We looked everywhere 
After this painful loss, "I Grieve" rises as the album's true heart. Originally featured in a much lesser version on the soundtrack to City of Angels, this song has grown from a simple lament into a progression that feels as long as the grieving process itself. Not only does the singer work through the dismay of death's shocking suddenness, but he also ponders the possibilities of what happens to life after it slips from our grasp.
So hard to move on
Still loving what's gone
They say life carries on
Carries on and on and on
Life carries on. For some, this will sound hopeful. For others, it will sound like a nightmare. Life carries on, but does it get better? Is there relief or hope? All Gabriel offers is that it "carries on" in the "dogs and cats, the flies and rats / the rot and the rust, the ashes and the dust." Is this supposed to be comforting?

Now would be the time for some encouragement.

Instead, we get "The Barry Williams Show", a song that sticks out like a sore thumb... or better, a sore arm and leg. Suddenly we're thrust into a tour of an imaginary, nightmare version of The Jerry Springer show. Gabriel describes the zany acts onstage:

Before the show we calm them
We sympathise, we care
And the hostile folk we keep apart
'til the red light says 'on air'
Did you see our leather lovers
All tied up to the chair
Did you catch those child molesters
No one else goes there 
The song goes on to poke fun at the emptiness of the show host's exploitation. A deserving target, yes, but a painfully easy target to boot. Gabriel has always been a wicked satirist. But this is just seven minutes of pointing out the obvious. He may has well have said, "Hey, how 'bout those crazy, manipulative televangelists?
Aren't they nutty?"

And what is this doing in an album about the fragility and temporality of life and the mystery of the great beyond? Maybe it'll dawn on me eventually, but it hasn't yet.

The main theme returns, as the singer inventories the specific sounds that connect him to his memories and his past. 

The oil is spitting in the saucepan
I squeeze the sponge and let the cat out
Oh my head sounds like that
Oh my head 
That head seems to be getting heavier by the song. As Gabriel mourns the fragility and temporality of memory, he is also celebrating the specificity of each human experience. But the music is both sweet and sour, the "Imagine"-like piano chords given a distant echo, as though even the music is a fragment from his memory. "The moments come and go like water," he sings. "I try to hold them but they're fading…"

Once again, he turns to assure us that it's not all bad news. He has a sense — unspecific, but it's there —- that there is something waiting on the other side of death. 

There was something stirring
In the air in front of me, I could see  
More than this 
More than this
So much more than this
There is something else there
"More Than This" is a whole-hearted, simplistic attempt at spirit-lifting, as close to a radio-ready song as anything on the album. It musters a semblance of optimism and energy in its instrumentation, but it's still a far cry from the exhilaration of "Secret World" or "Solsbury Hill." It's an expression of hopefulness, but nothing more. 

All of these songs leave me thinking how much more interesting it might have been to speculate or to consider clues as to what this "more" really is, whether it is an entity that is aware of us or merely another stage of baffling existence. 

The album's intensity peaks in "Signal to Noise," a lament of the increasing chaos and overload of useless information that pummels us through the media:

And in this place, can you reassure me
With a touch, a smile - while the cradle's burning
All the while the world is turning to noise
Oh the more that it's surrounding us
The more that it destroys
Turn up the signal
Wipe out the noise 
Like a last gasp, "The Drop" closes the record with yet another spectacle of death and destruction, a picture that would have seemed surreal and strange before September 11th. The lyrics recall to my mind those terrible images of falling bodies and rising dust. And the question hangs in the air at the end, just as it did in the beginning
One by one
You watch them fall
And wonder where they're falling to
Art has always been a place to ask the lasting questions. But great art ventures into the questions and suggests possibilities, or illuminates something about life this side of death and the waiting on this side of the curtain. Think of the spiritual dialogues between Bono and God in All That You Can’t Leave Behind, or the way Springsteen’s faith leads him to believe in help and hope in the form of a person, a benevolence. Up just seems to murmur the questions over and over, searching for the strength to go on. Without any contemplation of the Giver of Life, or One who is orchestrating all this seeming-chaos into a larger design, there is nothing to look forward to.

I wonder if Gabriel has lost sight of the One to whom he appealed in such uplifting, sustaining songs as "In Your Eyes." In "Solsbury Hill," he heard a voice from beyond and climbed a hill to a dazzling view. He was filled with vision and purpose. It felt like the beginning of a grand adventure. This, on the other hand, feels like sliding back down the hill, losing the vision, and settling in the darkness. The One he was searching for seems farther away than ever. 

In a year characterized by grief, loss, and chaos, the simple prayers of Bruce Springsteen and the ambitious anthems of faith provided by U2 offer much more sustaining visions than these incomplete meditations. Perhaps the most compelling thing about this album is ultimately the spectacle of watching a dreamer losing the dream, a visionary pouring his spiritual anxiety out in an elaborate and, yes, exquisite fashion.

Jeffrey Overstreet  12/4/2002
 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.   He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com

 
 
 

 

   
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