Absent from the rock scene for about 10 years (while he worked on various film scores, and also contributed a musical piece to the Millennium Dome), Peter Gabriel is Britain’s uncrowned king of progressive rock, and anyone who’d thought he was passed his prime, over the hill or just old, wrinkly and decrepit is in for a big surprise here. The one-word brevity of title for this highly impassioned comeback album continues the fashionable minimalism set by previous CD release So(1986), his video collection CV, and essential two-CD retrospective Hit (the second disc of which is half-jokingly labelled ‘Miss’, yet it actually features some of his finest work).
From the first track, Darkness, which opens very quietly indeed before its unnerving sonic attack strikes like a genuinely primal shock, and the amazing techno rhythms of Growing Up, it’s clear the wizard of daring eclecticism hasn’t lost his magic touch. The usual healthy mix of ethnic singers as backing vocalists and startling use of ordinary or traditional musical instruments (such as trumpet, Hammond organ, harmonica, tom toms, mandolin, and even recorders) is contrasted with the hi-tech stuff, including treated loops, sampling, drum machinery, programming and, oh yes, there’s a ‘Wonky Nord’!
Switching from sombre and wretchedly miserable to joyous and expressively theatrical moods, the mode is changeable, between songs and throughout them. So, typically, it’s rather difficult if not quite impossible to predict how any song will develop. Gabriel is no respecter of conventional lyrics or composition. The outright cynical tone of The Barry Williams Show, firing a critical broadside against trash TV culture, nonetheless has some upbeat moments, as if in recognition of the celebratory warts ‘n’ all concerns of such obviously lowest-common-denominator entertainments.
Often, though, it’s not the big production numbers but the simpler, subtler stuff, like My Head Sounds Like That (accompanied mostly by piano and a brass band), which is the most compelling and haunting. More Than This is an attention-grabbing treatise on spiritual awakening, Signal To Noise has a warbling, wailing vocal by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that chills yet enthrals, and builds up to a crescendo with drums by the Dohl Foundation and strings by the London Session Orchestra. It’s not easy to find your way back from where it takes you…
Closing track, The Drop, couldn’t possibly be more different. With a minor Gabriel lyric and seemingly random plonking of Bosendorfer keys, it’s almost anticlimactic. However, it somehow manages to disturb your sleep – with a kind of brain-worm presence – for many days afterwards. What more can one ask of contemporary music?