Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Buried Treasure #1

It's not the most original idea I've ever had but, partially because I've been writing almost exclusively about new music here, and also simply because I feel like it, I've decided to initiate a new occasional series focusing on lost or undiscovered classic albums. Here's the first.

Peter Gabriel - Us (Realworld, 1992)

Artists can sometimes never win. They are often lambasted for compromising, and paying too much attention to their core audience, as Coldplay were (perhaps justly) for resisting experimentalism on 'X&Y'. Sometimes there's a much thornier criticism though - that an artist has made a record purely for themselves, and if anyone else likes it, well, it's just a bonus. This is how many approached 'Us', Peter Gabriel's magnum opus dissecting human relationships, when it finally appeared six long years after the commercial triumph of 'So'.

It's certainly a difficult record, and perhaps there are parts of it that are easier to admire than like. Only two of the album's ten tracks are less than five minutes long. I was a mere eleven years old when the album first appeared, and much of its subtle ambience baffled me at that age. Had I purchased it on CD rather than cheapo cassette, I would surely have skipped to the more rhythmic and accessible singles - 'Steam', 'Digging In The Dirt', and 'Kiss That Frog' (the first basically a verbatim rewrite of 'Sledgehammer'), all three of which I completely adored.

Yet 'Us' is a defiantly mature record, rich in wisdom and experience, and something much greater than just a conventional 'breakup' record. The sensory, atmospheric flourishes to much of the music, the meticulous studio sheen and the sheer ambition of the arrangements serve to highlight its emotional and thematic complexity. It's a collection of songs that, challenging conventional wisdom, dare to suggest that as we grow older, we merely become more confused and perplexed by the intricacies of emotion and feeling. As such, it makes perfect sense that the accompanying music is frequently labyrinthine and difficult to interpret.

Thus far, 'Us' is probably the most coherent synthesis of Gabriel's preoccupations with Western production techniques, pop melody and the rhythms of music from around the globe, particularly from Africa. It's a much less schematic and less explicit synthesis than Paul Simon's 'Graceland', or even much of the recent solo work of David Byrne. For example, the combination of Irish intonations and harmony (as emphasised by Sinead O' Connor's longing backing vocals) with the elaborate rhythms of the Boubacar Faye Drummers on 'Come Talk To Me' makes for something mysterious and intoxicating. What a perfect backdrop all this is for Gabriel's extraordinary opening lyrics, compelling in their considered intensity: 'The wretched desert takes its form/The Jackal proud and tight/In search of you I feel my way/Through the slowest heaving night/Whatever fear invents, I swear it makes no sense/ I reach out through the border fence/Come down, come talk to me'. It has the beauty and poise of great poetry.

Elsewhere, Gabriel's imagery is unafraid to delve into the darkest of places. On 'Only Us', he sums up the album's themes most succinctly: '..I'm finding my way home from the great escape/The further on I go, oh the less I know/I can find only us breathing, only us sleeping, only us dreaming'. On 'Digging In The Dirt', he's actively searching for the unpleasant truths concealed beneath thick skin ('something in me, dark and sticky/all the time it's getting strong'). The opening lines of the gorgeous 'Blood Of Eden' are also extraordinary in their portrayal of a man finally understanding what he sees in the mirror's reflection. Reprieve comes only with the lite funk of 'Steam', a hugely enjoyable pop moment that perhaps sounds out of place, with the baptismal qualities of the vulnerable 'Washing Of The Water', and with the nostalgic regret of the closing 'Secret World'.

The album also benefits massively from its enormous cast list of musicians. Regular collaborators such as drummer Manu Katche, and technically adept bassist Tony 'Mr. Funk Fingers' Levin provide the crisp, almost mechanical rhythm section, whilst appearances from the likes of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Malcolm Burn (as musicians rather than producers), enhance the dense and compelling mood. The contributions of legendary Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli on 'Steam' and 'Digging In The Dirt' add real spirited groove too. The arrangements are audacious in the extreme - 'Digging In The Dirt' veers through multiple personalities, all the time retaining its relentless metronomic backbeat, whilst 'Kiss That Frog' places the rhythmic emphasis in a place completely unfamiliar to most western ears. What a shame that the version released as a single was plodding and conventional by comparison.

Whilst it's easy to see why the ethereal, otherworldly atmospherics made listeners feel detached from the experience, in retrospect, it's also arguable that this album had an enormous influence. It's perhaps no coincidence that Daniel Lanois and Malcolm Burn would use similar tactics as producers on records as vital as Bob Dylan's 'Time Out Of Mind' and three superb albums from Emmylou Harris ('Wrecking Ball', 'Red Dirt Girl' and, most recently, 'Stumble Into Grace'). They were lucky to be working with artists who could reach similar lyrical depth as Gabriel explored on this candid, challenging and powerful masterpiece.

It's clear now too that 'Us' marked a point of transition in Gabriel's career, much as 'The Royal Scam' marked out a seismic shift for Steely Dan in the mid-70s. After that album, Fagen and Becker became obsessed with the quest for perfection, gradually reducing the input of their always superb groups of session players, and eventually emerging with the total precision of 'Gaucho' in 1980. Gabriel's obsession with sound and studio techniques probably began as early as his time with Genesis, but there was always an organic quality to the best of his early solo albums. He would take more than ten years to produce a successor to 'Us', the meticulously crafted, if less consistent 'Up'. Rumour has it that another album will emerge this year through an online only distribution process - but Gabriel doesn't any longer have a good track record on meeting self-imposed deadlines!

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