An Abbreviated History of Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel is one of my great musical heroes, a touchstone whose diverse body of work colors the way I listen to nearly everything else– and in 2010, I’m sorry to say, that makes me a bit of a dinosaur. These days, Gabriel is recognized primarily for his pioneering work in fusing world music to rock and roll, work he began on his own recordings and continues in his role as the Real World Records guru. But Gabriel is so much more than The Guy from the Vampire Weekend Song– and either a cursory scan through his body of recordings, or even just to his most recent LP, Scratch My Back, offers proof of his ample skill as a pop provocateur of endless ambition and dimension. In honor of Scratch My Back‘s release, I’ve put together a very brief, painfully incomplete primer on the man’s music– a summary, an introduction, a tribute to a man whose records mean quite a lot to me. Note that I don’t intend this to be a full list of Gabriel’s great recordings, or even a list of the best– rather, I mean it to be a survey of albums that demonstrate the breadth of the man’s vision.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis, 1974)
What would a discussion of Peter Gabriel be without at least a mention of Genesis? Before they became respected rock and rollers, they were art-rock pioneers, and Gabriel a frontman whose vision were clearly too great to be confined to a band for too long. He made several stellar records with them, but this one– a sacred relic from the golden age of prog-rock– is the one that speaks most clearly to Gabriel’s tireless ambition– specifically, the literary flourishes, conceptual thrust, and musical complexity that would inform his work for decades to come.

Peter Gabriel 3 [Melt] (1980)
Of Gabriel’s early-period solo work– and in that group I include his three self-titled albums as well as Security— this one is my favorite. Gabriel’s reputation as a perfectionist and a perpetual tinkerer has grown into true infamy, but on this recording his meticulous ear for sound and detail yield thrillingly bizarre and absorbing results, an album where the textures within the production are as integral to the music’s meaning as the lyrics or the melody. But it’s also proof that Gabriel was blossoming as a songwriter, as a couple of oddball rock singles demonstrate. But perhaps most importantly, this is the record where Gabriel’s dark introspection shows its first signs of purpose and compassion, as illustrated in the soaring anthem of selfless love, “Biko,” that closes the set.

So (1986)
All the threads came together on this, Gabriel’s massive blockbuster and all-time classic: His obsessions with world music as well as studio technology, with sound and texture but also with melody, his inclinations toward the cutting-edge but also deep respect for tradition. The tracklisting reads like a greatest hits album, including everything from his Motown-inspired sex carnival “Sledgehammer” to his brooding paean to Ann Sexton (“Mercy Street”), from his soaring, apocalyptic anthem “Red Rain” to the lover’s hymn “In Your Eyes.” So stands as the greatest monument to Gabriel’s muse, his personality distinctly written over every little note here, but its greatest legacy might be its revelation that Gabriel is, among so many other things, an ace pop songwriter.

Passion (1989)
Gabriel has increasingly turned his focus away from pop and toward soundtrack work, and his various instrumental compositions– moody fusions of third world beats with ominous synthesizers– betray a keen ear for dynamics and texture. They’re all good, but my favorite is his inspired musical meditation on the suffering of Christ; it was used as a soundtrack to The Last Temptation, but it stands on its own as a harrowing but ultimately transcendent tapestry of earthy rhythms, enlivened with echoes of the sublime.

Up (2002)
This might seem an odd selection, being as it is perhaps the least-regarded work in Gabriel’s canon, and indeed, it reveals the artist to be his own worst enemy– his dogged focus on sound and production creating something that’s insular and at times downright difficult– but if this is a far cry from the spirited pop of So, it also contains some of the most bewitching and intoxicating soundscapes the man has ever created; even when the songs themselves aren’t memorable, the details of the production are downright haunting.

Scratch My Back (2010)
Where Gabriel’s first all-covers album will end up ranking in his discography remains to be seen, but for now, let me say this: That I am deeply grateful for this recording. Everything that has defined Gabriel for so long– the world music, the dark production, the moody soundscapes– is rejected here, and the emphasis shifted to his other, more overlooked gifts– specifically, that the man knows his way around a pop song, that he has a keen intuition when it comes to melody and lyric, and, most crucially, that he is simply one of the best, most soulful rock singers around.

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