Peter Gabriel & Friends: “Big Blue Ball”
No one has done more to bring third-world music to Western audiences than Peter Gabriel, and no one has done it with a greater sense of artistry and creative synthesis. Even on his very earliest solo albums, Gabriel was blending ethnic instruments and rhythms with his finely-honed instincts as a pop songwriter and as a composer, often so seamlessly that his fascination with African, Asian, and South American music became just another puzzle piece in his tapestry of sounds and styles, fitting in right alongside his dabblings in progressive rock, Motown, and electronica. His role as musical anthropologist peaked with his two late-80s masterpiece, So and the instrumental work Passion-the former of which found him integrating his stray influences with greater subtlety and complexity than ever before, and the latter found him weaving together strands from several different cultures into a hypnotic, energetic whole.
And so no one was surprised when he founded a record label, Real World, to showcase talents from all around the globe, just as no one was surprised when he announced a multi-artist, multi-national collaboration called Big Blue Ball-which is, of course, the perfect title for this kind of globe-spanning album. And neither was anyone surprised when the album met delay after delay, eventually taking a whole fifteen years to be finished and released-this is, after all, the same man who took ten years laboring over his most recent solo recording, Up.
It should come as no real shock, then, to know that the finished product is every bit as ambitious and as meticulously-crafted as the belabored Up, even though by it’s very nature it’s much more eclectic and surprising than that album. A collaboration between artists from all over the globe-including several talents from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as American and European artists like Gabriel protégé Joseph Arthur, blues group the Holmes Brothers, and even some surprising cameos from Sinead O’Connor and Kurt Wallinger-the album offers a rather dazzling array of ethnic flavors, and is arguably the most far-reaching album of its kind in years, as well as the most consistent.
But in a way, that’s what’s disappointing about it. What has long set Gabriel apart from his contemporaries like David Byrne and Paul Simon is his integrative approach, the way he doesn’t just borrow from world music, but actually blends it with his own, more familiar style. Big Blue Ball is certainly billed as that kind of integrative, collaborative album, and indeed, the artists all sing and play on each other’s tracks, but it’s far too rare that their individual styles and culture are truly blended. Each song clearly focuses on a single talent, which makes the album feel a bit like a big, well-produced Real World sampler-which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it is a bit less than we might have hoped for.
The glue that holds the whole thing together is Gabriel himself, of course, who ties each track together with his ominous synthesizers, just as he did on Passion. He also produces the set with Wallinger and Stephen Hague and gives each artist the space and the freedom to do their thing (though it must be said that he also contributes some unfortunate sequencing to the album, like his placement of the lengthy, slightly monotonous “Habibe” as the second track). Gabriel even sings on a few songs, which is a welcome sound indeed, particularly on the first track and lead single, “Whole Thing,” a spirited number that does a fine job of bringing third-world influences to a sharp pop hook and sing-along chorus. It’s an inspired, truly artful collaboration on an album that could have used a few more of them, but is nevertheless a worthwhile tour of numerous global talents who obviously deserve a wider western audience.