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Monday, December 12, 2016

Peter Gabriel -- Us


1986's So is the peak of Peter Gabriel's career. Once you're at the peak, the only way to go isn't actually down--you could also just stay at the peak. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, since So, Gabriel's music has trended downward. This is clear before even the halfway point of So's six-years-later follow-up, Us.
I couldn't do an objective review for So, but I can easily do one for Us, even though it does have a few of my favorite Gabriel songs. Us comes on the heels of Gabriel's soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which saw Gabriel working with Northern African  and Middle Eastern musicians. Part of that influence carries over to Us...
1. Come Talk to Me -- I really wish the rest of the album would have flowed with "Come Talk to Me" as a template. The song has a very epic feel, with bagpipes in the intro, and heavy African percussion throughout (and some African singing in the bridge), as Gabriel harmonizes with Sinéad O'Connor about a breakdown in communication. If you've seen any performance footage of this song from the "Secret World Tour," Gabriel does some really cool theatrical stuff, but with Paula Cole (yeah...Dawson's Creek theme song Paula Cole...and she does great!) in the female role.
2. Love to Be Loved -- Here's where a few minor cracks show. This ain't a bad song, but it's already weaker than anything on So, and we're only on the second track.
3. Blood of Eden -- But then here might be my favorite song Gabriel ever recorded. in the early 90's, Gabriel was reeling from his recent divorce, and this mediation on the great mystery of the union between male and female is one of his most painful and mystical songs. It's another duet with O'Connor, but in a far more gentle mode than "Come Talk to Me." The song flows like a gentle brook from the depths of the Earth up through an ancient, fertile, biblical landscape, African drums guiding with sure hands, old instruments (an ancient Armenian flute!) gliding against Gabriel's subtle synth work, the otherworldly backup vocals from co-producer Daniel Lanois, that almost medieval guitar in the soaring bridge, and stirring vocal performances by Gabriel and O'Connor. The video may be my favorite of any music video, doing a great job of somehow visually translating the song, and featuring arresting chemistry between Gabriel and O'Connor, who, with her shaved head and piercing eyes, is like some ancient Irish aes sídhe. Also, why haven't I been to the motherland by now? Even my non-Irish co-worker has been there! Life isn't fair!

4, Steam -- After the great "Blood of Eden," Us starts to take a turn for the worse. "Steam" is not a bad song, but it is a carbon copy of "Sledgehammer," minus the catchy flute sample.
5. Only Us -- Every time I hear this song, I immediately forget what it sounded like as soon as I don't hear it anymore.
6. Washing of the Water -- Borderline Jack Johnson/John Mayer softball crap, but it picks up a little at the end.
7. Digging in the Dirt -- I love the juxtaposition of aggression in the verses, and quiet, reverent seeking in the chorus. Sums up the themes of the album, as Gabriel lashes out, then realizes he needs to figure out what his issues are--yet, still doesn't want to be alone. An album highlight for sure, and the video is so cool, really early 90's, and full of imagination.

8. Fourteen Black Paintings -- Cool atmosphere, almost like a showcase for the things Gabriel learned on The Last Temptation... soundtrack.
9. Kiss That Frog -- If you are trying to make a sensitive, thoughtful album on the pain and searching you are doing after a divorce, maybe don't include this ridiculous song with a frog-for-penis metaphor about how you really want a blow job.  Somehow the music is worse than the concept.
10. Secret World -- This track is a pretty cool closer, a muted encapsulation of some of Us' better moments--but it would work a lot better if it was closing a consistent album.
So, "Blood of Eden" is one of the best songs I've ever heard, several other songs are pretty great, some are a bit boring, and one is borderline unlistenable ("Kiss That Frog"). If Gabriel could have taken the World Music influence to better encompass the entire album, and written some stronger songs to replace the weaker ones, he could have stayed on top. Instead, Us isn't So good.

1992 Geffen Records
1. Come Talk to Me 7:06
2. Love to Be Loved 5:18
3. Blood of Eden 6:38
4. Steam 6:03
5. Only Us 6:30
6. Washing of the Water 3:52
7. Digging in the Dirt 5:18
8. Fourteen Black Paintings 4:38
9. Kiss That Frog 5:20
10. Secret World 7:03