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Getting Up
Peter Gabriel makes an elegant return to his art-rock roots
BY TED DROZDOWSKI

Peter Gabrielís elegant Up (Geffen/Interscope) marks his unapologetic return to full-blown art rock. The album is big, moody, and beautiful ó layers upon layers of sound built from electronic synthesis, sampling, African percussion, backward, straight, and twisted guitars, and the lovely voices of Gabriel, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and the Blind Boys of Alabama gospel group. Most of its songs are fixated on the cycle of life and death, and the afterlife, and the notion of finding oneís place here and then there.

The album was almost eight years in the making, as Gabriel pursued other interests: soundtracks, jamming with apes in a Georgia language lab, turning his culture-sharing World of Music and Dance (WOMAD) project into a traveling international festival. But this seems a perfect time for an artist of his stature to release an album like Up. If a prickly, metallic outfit with a taste for pulp science fiction like Rush can finally be embraced for its art-rock inclinations in 2002, then surely someone with Gabrielís warmth and vision should be able to find an audience for the music that is closest to his heart. Besides, whatís the point of compromise in todayís marketplace? Airplay has become a paid commodity, the mainstream music press is largely uneducated and cynical, and the process of marketing CDs is so politically charged and dumbed down that quality is no longer a factor. As Laurie Anderson puts it, "CDs or hamburgers ó whatís the difference?"

The difference, of course, is that music can be art. (Granted, a gourmand might make the same argument for a burger.) Itís considerably easier and lazier to shrug off a work of art like Up than it is to dismiss a hot meal. Thatís why itís been fun to read the slam reviews. Lacking the easy map of Motown grooves, simple hooks, and quick rhymes that took 1986ís So ó which yielded the hits "Sledgehammer," "Big Time," and "In Your Eyes" ó to Hitsville USA and made Gabriel a superstar, Up requires repeated and thorough listening. A broad field of reference and an open mind help too. For art-rock fans, thatís manna; for most critics, thatís bother. So virtually all the pans of Up have been curt dismissals that carp about the "inexplicable" lack of hooks, grooves, and other pop-song devices and the overall lack of good-time vibes. But the truth is that the CD has grooves from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East wedged into nearly every crevice. Rich images and sonic details abound in "Signal to Noise," which features Islamic spiritual singer Khanís unearthly microtonal yodel (a direct 911 to Heaven), and "Sky Blue," the albumís best-bet single.

Up relights torches Gabriel lit decades ago. Its overall sound and tone reflect his 1982 solo masterpiece, Security (Geffen), the best fusion of world music, rock, narrative poetry, and studio technology ever recorded. And its themes flash back to his most epic lyric statements with Genesis, 1972ís Foxtrot (Charisma) and 1974ís The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (ATCO/Charisma), relics of the pre-CD age that also dealt with coming of age and finding a spiritual path. All but one of Upís songs exceed six minutes in their elaboration of musical ideas and their working through emotional baggage. The jungle firestorm that opens the CD in "Darkness" relents with the pastoral joy of the discovery that fears can be beaten. The tale of self-discovery, "Growing Up," is jammed with unexpected hooks: Middle Eastern percussion grooves, bubbling keyboard signatures, and the unlikely but addictive mantra "My ghost like to travel." "Sky Blue" is a lost soulís story set to exĖFleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Greenís blues contemplations, the Blind Boysí harmonies, and Gabrielís weary but enlightened travelerís voice.

And so it goes as these soundscapes accompany Gabriel on his journeys through emotional landscapes. The only lame track is, surprise, the first single that the record company is promoting. "The Barry Williams Show" is a naked slam of Jerry SpringerĖtype talk television. Although lines like "My SM lover hurt me/My girl became a man/I love my daughterís rapist/My lifeís gone down the pan" are funny and unsettling, and programs like the ones the song skewers do cheapen humanity, the track is out of character with the rest of the album. It dampens the overall quality that separates Up from almost everything else in todayís pop-music spectrum: a sense of timelessness.

Issue Date: October 10 - 17, 2002
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