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Peter has a bad skin day.

Sledge Hammer

Peter Gabriel turns back the clock on 'Up'

By Gina Arnold

BBC AMERICA CARRIES the raunchy and popular British talk show So Graham Norton. On a recent episode, Graham asked the audience what the most frightening thing they've ever seen was. "Your Dad dancing!" was his conclusion, at which point he launched a contest where the fathers of audience members disco'd their way to grand prizes.

I've never seen my own dad dance, but presumably the kids of Peter Gabriel have. They've also, alas, probably glimpsed pictures of him dressed as a human daffodil, which would be even more damaging to the psyche. That was back in his Genesis days, but still: thanks to antics like that one, Peter Gabriel has to be the artist who is simultaneously the easiest--and the hardest--to make fun of. He is also quite literally the only popular artist I can think of whose music was a lot worse when he was younger. That early Genesis stuff is unlistenable, but the minute he went solo, he turned into a genius. Most solo artists' careers reverse that equation, but Mr. Gabriel is living his life backward in more ways than one. He's 54, but his new LP Up sounds like it was made by a bunch of forward-thinking 25-year-olds who have a thing for scary noise bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails.

Up opens up with a track called "Darkness" that sounds as angry and as clattering and as dissonant as anything Al Jourgensen ever wrote. Unlike Al's oeuvre, though, "Darkness" is interspersed with brooding music that is both melodic and introspective. Lyrically, also, Gabriel is a poetic writer who deals thoughtfully with his subject matter. Songs like "No Way Out," "More Than This" and "My Head Sounds Like That" are angst-ridden quests for inner peace and self-worth in the midst of a violent and sometimes empty-seeming world. Two main themes emerge, one being childhood, and the other being death, both of them prompting Gabriel to question what life is all about. The final track, "The Drop," occurs on an airplane, as Gabriel looks down and wonders what would happen if the plane fell out of the sky. Gee: I wonder what prompted that idea?

The rest of the record continues in that vein, mingling multilayered rhythms with more conventional midtempo tunes, all of them elevated by Gabriel's empathetic, but somewhat foreboding take on the psychology of modern life. Most notable of all is the single, "The Barry Williams Show," which brilliantly condemns voyeuristic and mentally violent chat shows like Jerry Springer's--or even Graham Norton's. "Before the show we calm them, we sympathize, we care ... and the hostile folk we keep apart 'til the red light says 'on air,'" sings Gabriel, in the role of Williams. "... they call our studio 'the hospital,' making money from the sick. We let people be themselves, there is no other trick." The fact that the fictional host takes the name of Greg Brady's alter-ego is quite unintentional--although the lick stolen from Gabe's own "Games Without Frontiers" may not be.

Mr. Gabriel is also well known for popularizing "World Beat" music. Among other things, his WOMAD (World Organization of Music and Dance) Festivals and Center outside London has helped integrate African music into rock fans' consciousness. Up features numerous guest African drummers and the Blind Boys of Alabama, but it doesn't sound remotely world -inflected: it sounds like a beautifully rendered rock concept album. Like all the very most creative minds--Matt Groening, Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Springsteen come to mind--Gabriel has a knack for making unpalatable ideas easy to listen to, sometimes via ingenious new sonics, sometimes via subsidiary visual arts. It's well worth buying, rather than burning, this CD, since the booklet contains some remarkable photographs by artists like Shomei Tomatsu, Mari Mohr and Arna Rafael Minkkinen, among others.

Despite a depressing undercurrent which runs through its lyrics--and hell, these are depressing times--Up is a record which by its very existence gives rock back its good name, shedding light and grace on a genre which often seems old and tired and uninspired and phony. I hereby nominate Mr. Gabriel for an honorary Pulitzer Prize or at least a Ph.D.

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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