This is the second-best Peter Gabriel album. Reading internet comments about this album on various sites is – as always the case of reading internet comments – a tedious and frustrating exercise; a lot of people unforgiving about this album turning Peter Gabriel from introverted pop-star to household name. “Sellout,” you know the drill. (The same happened with the recent release of Grimes’ Art Angels. Music fans, fickle fucks that we are, we want artists to be our’s, not everyone’s. Go back to yr underdeveloped ephemera!) But Peter Gabriel has been a pop-star since about 1973 when “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” was the best or second-best song from Selling England by the Pound, when most of the songs on Lamb Lies Down on Broadway were pop songs working in a progressive whole, when “Solsbury Hill” was the best thing about ”Car”, when “D.I.Y.” was the best song from ”Scratch”, when “Games Without Frontiers” was the best song from ”Melt”. The only caveat – not a successful one.
Of course, I don’t deny that this album is a conscious step towards the mainstream (he himself mentions being more “fun” on this one), but people make it out like that isn’t fellow art poppers Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson on this album, but Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. What I argue, however, is the arranging of Gabriel’s experimental tendencies into pop songs is inherently challenging, and those experimental tendencies are still here: the hard smack of the bass on “Big Time” is apparently achieved by drummer Jerry Marotta hitting Tony Levin’s bass; “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” was written originally for ”Melt”; he travels to Brazil and discovers forro and harnesses it into “Mercy Street.” Speaking of and broadly speaking, the undercurrent of world music that he started playing with back in 1982’s ”Security” used as more than a badge.
Daniel Lanois, studying under Brian Eno for U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, co-produces this album, and it’s through Lanois giving every sound room to breathe (high-detail) that we achieve something like “Red Rain,” where it sounds like Peter Gabriel is King Lear in the most famous scene from that play. Peter Gabriel’s most formidable weapon was always his voice, one that was capable of simultaneous theatricality and vulnerability. There’s “Sledgehammer,” where the synthesized African intro gives way to the rest of the song, coming in like an actual audio sledgehammer. I initially raised an eyebrow when I read that he found inspiration for this song from Otis Redding, but the horny strut (and I’m not just making a bad pun about the horns; the song opens with “You could have a steam train / If you’d just lay down your tracks”) does feel indebted to the 60s, but modernized, to say nothing of Peter Gabriel’s vocal acrobatics, “Why don’t you call my name? YAH!” “Don’t Give Up” might seem to squander the star power by delegating both Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush to power ballad-duet, but Kate Bush’s hook here is so sweet and endearingly optimistic, that I find it hard to believe that anyone could actively hate this song for any reason.
And while there’s a slight drop-off after the opening trio of songs, the drop-off isn’t exactly noticeable: every song offers pleasures. There’s the bass of aforementioned bass in the subtly satirical “Big Time”, the same skittering drums of “Red Rain” on “That Voice Again,” or the keyboard line in “In Your Eyes,” with backing vocals from the Coasters’ Ronnie Bright. Elsewhere, Peter Gabriel channels David Bowie from Low or ”Heroes” on “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”, Milgram referring to the famous Milgram study that tried to understand why so many people followed Hitler, creating a dark soundscape of keyboard plinks, synth effects and bass slabs. (Shit, it’s better than a lot of songs from either of those Bowie albums.) Returning the favour of Peter Gabriel helping out on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak (PSA: “Sharkey’s Day” is one of the greatest thing you’ll ever hear), Laurie shows up on and co-writes “This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)” (only Anderson could write a line like “When I see the future, I close my eyes / I can see it now”), their voices alternating between robotic and human.
And yet, I should write that this being the mid-80s, all of the songs are a bit longer than usual, averaging 4-6 minutes (through a lot of repetition) instead of a more compact 3-5. Which would be a problem if Peter Gabriel couldn’t sustain interest over the course of the songs, but he does, and methinks he was secretly glad for the times. Peter Gabriel was a genius, of course; having three of the greatest progressive rock albums has secured his place in Valhalla. But his genius since being expelled from Genesis has been mostly riding on his ineffable voice and access to other great musicians (Robert Fripp, Phil Collins, Steve Lillywhite, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Daniel Lanois): neither ”Car” nor ”Scratch” are anything more than solid albums (they’re not even good albums in my book), and after So he had about two minor successes left. Second-best, like I said. After ”Melt”.