A Beginner’s Guide To Peter Gabriel: 27 Essential Tracks
In the history of classic rock, few big names have had a career quite like Peter Gabriel’s. After all, it’s hard to even make sense of his arc: This is a guy who went from ’70s prog to an art-rock tinged with ’80s new wave and post-punk to experimental pop auteurism to becoming an elder statesman who goes a decade or more without releasing much in the way of new music. Along the way, he’s existed as a paradox. His name is well-known, while a lot of his work is not. He’s a few-hit wonder who’s also a beloved legacy artist.
His career began, of course, as the frontman of Genesis, but he left years before they became ’80s pop monoliths, then led by Phil Collins, his old bandmate who remained his collaborator outside of Genesis. Even in an era of no guilty pleasures, of revivals and reappraisals of all that was popular then unhip, Genesis’ legacy is a murky one. You still have fans who worship the Gabriel years and swear off anything that happened after; you have people who only know and love the hits; you have people who regard it all as unredeemable cheese and excess of various breeds.
Their trajectories aren’t all that divergent in reality. If you play Genesis’ 1981 LP Abacab alongside Gabriel’s third solo LP, from 1980, they exist on a similar spectrum of the time’s futuristic synth-rock, just on different points in that spectrum. Play later songs from all the parties involved, and you can certainly still hear overlaps: Try “In Your Eyes” alongside Collins’ “Take Me Home” and Genesis’ “Invisible Touch.” They all come from ’85/’86, and they sound like they could co-exist on an album from an alternate universe in which Gabriel rejoined Genesis as Collins’ co-frontman.
But perhaps thanks to Collins’ propensity to dive headlong into schmaltz, there often feels as if there’s this perception that Gabriel is the more respectable option, that he abandoned Genesis for a solo career that was artier, brainier, more adventurous than where his old band eventually went. That he was cooler. But was Peter Gabriel ever cool, exactly?
He made his solo debut in 1977, when he was 28 years old and had already been releasing music for almost a decade. At the same time, there was a whole new generation of young punks rising up with, as the narrative of pop history tells us, the fire to burn down excessive dinosaur bands of ’60s and ’70s rock — bands like Genesis, the one Gabriel had just fled. And the album with which Gabriel kicked off his solo career wasn’t exactly a rejection of his ’70s rock stylings.
But what happened after that was when it becomes truly fascinating. Seemingly a creature of the ’70s through and through, Gabriel discovered a new artistic vitality at the dawn of the ’80s. There he was, having (mostly) ditched the theatrical costumes of his Genesis days, hair hewn short, barking and intoning over forward-thinking arrangements of synths and alien guitars, spearheading forward-thinking production techniques that could make his percussion sound brittle yet booming. (Between both of their releases around 1980, Gabriel and Collins explored the use of gated reverb on drums, thus helping define the sound of the ensuing decade.)
Gabriel’s first four solo outings are all technically self-titled, so they’re often referred to by their numbers or by the one word ciphers that had been applied to them. (They are, in order: Car, Scratch, Melt, and Security.) Those albums gave us some of Gabriel’s most well-known songs — “Solsbury Hill,” “Games Without Frontiers,” “Shock The Monkey.” But they’re also somewhat underrated in the grand scheme of things, considering the theoretical size of Gabriel’s name. They exist just to the side of the canon, not always fitting in with exactly one trajectory. They are not akin to the moves his ’70s peers often tried to make to adapt to the ’80s, nor are they of the exact same DNA of the younger generation coming up early in that decade.
There’s a way in which, then and today, Gabriel always feels like something of an outsider. And yet, the ’80s were the decade in which he flourished in a new way, when he discovered a perfect balance between his keen pop sensibility and his restless ear. It’s when he fostered a love of non-Western musical traditions, and embarked on efforts to blend them with his own style while maintaining an earnest engagement with the musicians within them. In the middle of the decade, he would release So, a totemic work that effortlessly collected (and mutated) various strains of ’80s pop. It’s the album that would give him his most ubiquitous songs, including “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer,” partially thanks to ground-breaking videos that wound up in constant circulation.
Suddenly, Gabriel was a bona fide mainstream artist. The guy who used to shave weird chunks out of his long hair now had the appearance of a leading man, too, the proper coif and sportcoat to croon over synth-driven arrangements that were accessible enough to catch on in teen films but innovative and enigmatic enough to have lasting power, too. He had big singles, and he could’ve leveraged that into the sort of dominance that doesn’t leave any room for questions about your stature decades down the line.
But Gabriel’s career doesn’t follow predictable pathways, and so that’s not what happened at all. How did he respond to his mainstream breakthrough? By waiting six goddamn years to release a proper followup, re-entering the pop sphere in the completely different landscape of 1992. In the 32 years since So came out, Gabriel has released just two traditional solo albums of new material — its successor Us and 2002’s Up. We’re still waiting to see what will happen next, if anything.
It isn’t the same as other older artists, the ones who cranked out two albums a year in their youth and naturally slow down after they’ve been in the game for three or four decades. Gabriel has only seven full-fledged solo collections to his name from a post-Genesis career that has now crested past the 40 year mark; in between, there were loose singles, collaborations, and occasional soundtrack work, plus two albums re-interpreting pre-existing material in an orchestral setting. But even so, there aren’t a lot of songs out there for a man with as much clout and notoriety as Gabriel, for a guy whose next move would still generate headlines.
As such, Gabriel’s career feels elusive — not just because of its unusual twists and pauses, but because there’s so little to explore and yet so much to explore within it. He has not been the most prolific, and so each missive feels like something to be cherished, turned over again and again. In the artists where you can find Gabriel’s influence, you really hear it; the fans are devout. It’s the sort of catalog that a person feels some ownership over once they’ve discovered it.
And now that catalog in question has arrived on Spotify today after years of Gabriel being a holdout, maybe some more people will make that discovery. (For now, it’s his self-titled albums, So, Us, Up, and two hits compilations that are available on the streaming service; his scores and orchestral albums will follow later.) So, on that occasion, here’s a bit of an overview to not only help guide the uninitiated through the hits, fan favorites, and some deep cuts that summarize Gabriel’s solo work, but to celebrate a catalog that remains overlooked despite what you might expect, and despite the riches that are obviously waiting there.
“Solsbury Hill” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Car, 1977)
The first single from Gabriel after departing Genesis has, fittingly enough, often been discussed as a meditation and revelation on his decision to quit and get a fresh start. That makes it a crucial part of Gabriel’s story, but its broader meaning of leaving something behind to gain something else has also made it one of his most affecting early tracks. It’s also been used in a ton of movie trailers over the years, making it one of his more ever-present and recognizable songs even compared to the major hits from later on.
A gently thrumming folk-pop composition, “Solsbury Hill” gives us Gabriel’s distinct voice delivering a highly memorable melody, but it’s really the way every aspect plays off the others perfectly that makes the song: the forward momentum of a persistent bass drum, the wandering but focused guitar figure, and especially Gabriel’s singing against the flute accompaniment. It all comes together into one of those mysterious arrangements that could sound like hurt, wistfulness, and a new beginning all at once.
“Modern Love” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Car, 1977)
As his first solo outing, Car is slightly all over the place stylistically — like an overflow of ideas, perhaps leftover or perhaps blossoming in the new context of Gabriel’s artistic life. There’s half-anthemic, half-cartoonish prog-glam in “Moribund The Burgermeister,” haggard balladry in the gorgeous “Humdrum” (which is reminiscent of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue from the same year), and oddities like the barbershop a cappella intro to “Excuse Me.”
As evidenced by the latter example, not everything here worked, necessarily. But when it did, it was an exhilarating intro to Gabriel as solo artist. One of the most immediately lovable inclusions is the straightahead rocker “Modern Love.” It might sound more inherently of its time than some of the more pioneering work Gabriel would soon venture into, but it’s also one of the most direct and gratifying songs from his early albums.
“Here Comes The Flood” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Car, 1977)
Car’s closer got a new bit of relevance in recent years — it was used in one of The Americans’ many memorable music sequences (and one of a handful that have leaned on Gabriel’s material). In this instance, the show chose well: There’s a high drama to “Here Comes The Flood,” mostly thanks to its climactic chorus. Gabriel would revisit and rearrange the song over the years — first with his collaborator Robert Fripp for the latter’s debut solo album, 1979’s Exposure, and then again in 1990 for his own greatest hits compilation Shaking The Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats. Both of the later iterations were far more stripped and restrained, with Gabriel apparently having found that original’s chorus too bombastic. But while those later readings are affecting, there’s still something powerful in the sheer avalanche of their predecessor.
“On The Air” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Scratch, 1978)
Don’t be fooled by the implied violence of the title and cover for Gabriel’s second solo collection, Scratch. Out of his early albums, it’s the most subdued, being dominated by a handful of rainy day piano-based ballads. It’s more cohesive than its predecessor, but also has less obvious standouts. These are subtle songs that invite personal connections derived from many listens.
But it starts off with a rush — the dexterous “On The Air.” Combined with “D.I.Y.,” “On The Air” kicks off the one-two punch of Scratch before the album strides into mellower territory. Regardless of it being somewhat of a feint, “On The Air” works as a great opener. It bears a resemblance to Gabriel’s prior uptempo compositions, but it suggests the expansiveness to come thanks to the synths that ripple all across the track.
“White Shadow” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Scratch, 1978)
Even if a lot of Scratch feels quieter than Gabriel’s other early albums, there are plenty of left turns, plenty of songs that evolve in surprising ways. “White Shadow” is the prog ballad that serves as one of the LP’s centerpieces. Not unexpectedly for an album produced by Robert Fripp, there is a good amount of space-age instrumentation lending “White Shadow” a surreal, late-night character. But perhaps the part that lingers most is how Gabriel’s voice drops down to give the chorus some weight.
“I Don’t Remember” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Melt, 1980)
Here’s where things really pick up. Honestly, the entirety of Melt could be on this list. This was a new artistic achievement for Gabriel in his solo years, and remains one of the best releases under his own name. Out of any of the pre-So albums, and especially the first three, Melt is without question the strongest front to back. There’s zero filler or failed experiments, just 10 perfect compositions that fire off in a lot of different directions while still coming together into a cohesive arc.
Its moniker is an appropriate one: Melt is all smeared, gurgling guitars against crystalline textures. Between the innovative reverb on the drums and Gabriel’s proclamation that no cymbals were to be used, the album takes on a sort of robotic and icy insistence. Melt’s first act establishes its greyscale fear perfectly, the foreboding “Intruder” leading up to the roiling “No Self Control,” and the winter night ambience of “Start” before hitting “I Don’t Remember.” Any of those other tracks would be a worthy conclusion here, but it’s hard to get the bug-eyed pop of “I Don’t Remember” out of your head — it’s one of the album’s catchiest songs, but it still sounds unnerving thanks to the frenzied, dark electricity Gabriel douses it in.
“And Through The Wire” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Melt, 1980)
Compared to much of its surroundings, there’s a hint of brightness to “And Through The Wire.” It’s a punchy song that exists within the same mechanistic relentlessness of the rest of Melt, but its chorus peels open, offering a breath amidst the suffocation that pervades the album otherwise. This might be what passes as an anthem in the context of Melt, and fittingly it’s an anthem that struggles to burst out until Gabriel roars through that chorus.
“Games Without Frontiers” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Melt, 1980)
The aesthetic of Melt gives it the cold, claustrophobic sheen of a lot of great Cold War art. And its key track, “Games Without Frontiers,” lives on as one of the iconic songs capturing the anxiety of a renewed era of superpower tension and the attendant arms races. Sonically, Melt has always felt like a cousin to David Bowie’s 1977 release “Heroes”; they both exist in that bleak, post-war landscape with the sound of new technology already rusting.
“Games Without Frontiers” is of course also notable for featuring an ascendent Kate Bush cooing responses to Gabriel’s more sardonic delivery. (Bush also appeared on “No Self Control,” and later on the So cut “Don’t Give Up.”) It led to a lot of lyrical misinterpretation; people apparently heard it as “She’s so funky” despite Bush singing “Jeux San Frontières,” the title of the song in French but also the title of a European game show Gabriel had taken inspiration from. (His repetition of “It’s a knockout!” is also a reference to this.)
That’s the premise Gabriel started with, and it’s an unnerving vehicle through which he collapses critiques of militarism and global politics, in a melody that’s almost an inversion of a pleasant playground singalong. The martial mood pops up throughout, with whistles and an off-kilter march of a beat. Considering all this, Bush’s voice doesn’t work so much as a salve than an added layer of discomfort, a ghost haunting the corners of the track. Altogether, “Games Without Frontiers” perfectly encapsulated the absurdity of it all, and it remains not only one of Gabriel’s signature songs but also one of his most evocative. After all, rather than feeling like a historical document, it hits frighteningly close to home today.
“Lead A Normal Life” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Melt, 1980)
Experimentation runs rampant on Melt, but perhaps none of its other tracks are as ambiguous as “Lead A Normal Life.” Its hypnotic instrumental passages initially come across like a moment of peace on a fractured album. But noisier interjections await, before Gabriel enters with a brief vocal with a narrative that alludes to a mental breakdown and time spent in a mental hospital. Suddenly the prettiness of the track otherwise feels like it has its own kind of menace, like its pleasantness is a medicinal shield breaking down under the threat of the darkness encroaching. And yet, the whole thing is still alluring, the cyclical pulse of its arrangement pulling you in deeper and deeper.
“Biko” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Melt, 1980)
While most of Melt could fit in right alongside “Heroes” in Berlin, “Biko” is a definitive turning point, where Gabriel starts to turn his eye outwards to sounds from across the world, and his attention towards cataloguing injustices in places far from his homeland. “Biko” was named for, and tells the story of, Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa who had died in police custody in 1977. This is where Melt, and Gabriel’s artistic disposition, open up; “Biko” foreshadowed not only Gabriel’s deeper engagement with world music, but also social narratives in subsequent writing.
It also became one of his definitive compositions; 10 years later, it was even more resonant as the fight to end apartheid reached its critical juncture. A then-gigantic Simple Minds covered it for their 1989 album Street Fighting Years, and also performed it with Gabriel at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1988. Every rendition is powerful in its own way, but it all goes back to Gabriel’s original — a song that draws on far-flung traditions to craft a universal prayer.
“San Jacinto” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Security, 1982)
“Biko” laid some groundwork. It betrayed Gabriel’s budding interest in non-Western musical traditions and approaches, particularly those of Africa, something he would engage with deeply for years to come. At the end of Melt, it was an outlier that only hinted at what could come next. But on Security, Gabriel began to venture elsewhere. The rhythms and drumming on that album started to meld other cultures with the art-rock Gabriel had recently mastered. On songs like opener “The Rhythm Of The Heat,” he presented something wholly unique — music that was just a few degrees removed from our world, different lineages interwoven. Even in something as initially sinister as “The Rhythm Of The Heat,” Security sounded like an explosive sunrise after the nocturnal haze on Melt.
Some of the songs here were ornate, and careful, sharing some DNA with the idiosyncratic works the Blue Nile and Talk Talk would offer years later, towards the end of the ’80s. On Security, the best of these songs was “San Jacinto.” Inspired by the dichotomy Gabriel witnessed between Native American and white American culture in California and an Apache man he met. Gabriel has called it a “journey” song relaying the story that Apache man told him of a teenage ritual involving being bitten by a snake and finding your way home.
To convey that, Gabriel built up a song that is dreamlike, appropriately sounding like a vision. The distinguishing element is the synth pattern, a distinct nod to Steve Reich’s patterns. Like “Lead A Normal Life,” Gabriel uses it to create a hypnotic atmosphere before rupturing it along the way. As the song grows, as the journey reaches its conclusion, Gabriel erupts into one of the most rawly emotional performances he ever recorded.
“I Have The Touch” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Security, 1982)
Not all of Security sounds like “San Jacinto.” Across only eight songs, Gabriel covered a lot of ground. Exhibit A: Right after the swelling crescendos of “San Jacinto” comes “I Have The Touch,” a corroded piece of new wave funk. It still exists in the haunting headspace of the rest of Security, its rhythms still mesmeric. But this is where he goes all the way artificial, relying on synths and beats that sound like computer spasms and plastic set on fire. And while it might be one of the more infectious compositions from his first couple albums, there’s a desperation to it: The way he bleats “I need contact!” sounds more frantic than hungry.
“Shock The Monkey” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Security, 1982)
Security is a truly bizarre album in that it’s where Gabriel unveiled some of his most experimental and visionary work while also edging closer to mainstream pop. You could hear a little of that on “I Have The Touch,” but “Shock The Monkey” is really where it comes to fruition; it became his first Top 40 hit Stateside. But make no mistake, it is still a weird pop song. It has an unnatural propulsion, like it wants to keep lurching back and forth while it still moves unerringly forward, mostly thanks to a main riff that’s some kind of bleed that could just as easily be synths or horns or guitars.
Part of its prominence was also thanks to its video. Gabriel was an early adopter of the burgeoning new aspect of the music industry, and it played in his favor for songs like “Shock The Monkey.” Later, the visual component of his work become one of the defining aspects of the So era and its attendant hits.
“Lay Your Hands On Me” (from Peter Gabriel AKA Security, 1982)
Initially, “Lay Your Hands On Me” appears to be full of dread, its arrangement a breaking-down pulse and waves of disquieted synths with Gabriel operating in a brooding sing-speak. But it’s a song about healing, and as such the ritual unfolds and promises catharsis. Later in the song, Gabriel surrenders, singing “I am willing/ I am ready/ I believe.” And the answer thunders in: crashing and tumbling drums, a chorus of voices pleading “Lay your hands on me/ Over me.” When the chorus truly rips itself open, it boasts one of the most entrancing melodies Gabriel ever conceived, his wails of “Over me/ Over me” channeling ecstasy, channeling salvation.
“Walk Through The Fire” (from Against All Odds soundtrack, 1984)
If you add up all the songs from Gabriel’s full-fledged albums, you won’t hit a very high number. But there is a lot of other music of his waiting in the wings — his own score work, and loose tracks that came out of collaborations or that he contributed to a soundtrack or compilation. “Walk Through The Fire” was his submission to the soundtrack for Against All Odds, a collection that also included his former bandmates Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins, who wrote the movie’s title track and subsequently earned his first #1 hit in America. In hindsight, “Walk Through The Fire” is a lost gem of Gabriel’s ’80s work, but it also signaled a transition, a bridge between the experimentation of Security and the more direct songwriting of So.
“Red Rain” (from So, 1986)
Across the earlier albums, you can hear all the different versions of Gabriel’s vocals — the clipped sneer of “Games Without Frontiers,” the roughened-yet-clear cries of “Solsbury Hill,” the idiosyncratic pop growl of “I Have The Touch” or “Shock The Monkey.” But by So, his voice had aged into something else entirely. It was a deep, rich, resonant instrument, one of the most subtly unique and powerful voices in rock history. It almost always sounds like there’s another sound within his voice somehow, two or three individual strains colliding together, and you just hear that sharpened point where they meet, leaving you with the suggestion of other versions lingering in the background.
When Gabriel turned that voice loose on his dense, emotional epics, it could sound like you were listening to an ancient and tumultuous river, staring into the waters knowing they were communicating something eternal but waiting for you to divine their exact meaning. That’s how his voice sounded on “Red Rain,” So’s apocalyptic opener. As far as introductions go, you couldn’t ask for a better curtain rise on a new era of Gabriel’s career than “Red Rain.” With plenty of ambience coating those climactic piano chords, the atmosphere of the song is enveloping, welcoming you into the singular, ardent pop of So. And of course, none of that would be possible without Gabriel’s presence — wizened from the years, but more emphatic a singer than ever before.
“Sledgehammer” (from So, 1986)
By the traditional mechanisms, “Sledgehammer” was Gabriel’s biggest hit, his only single to make it to #1 on the U.S. charts. (He had a couple on the Mainstream Rock chart.) And, no doubt, there’s a reason for that. “Sledgehammer” is a danceable, soulful single, loaded with hooks — not just Gabriel’s verse and chorus melodies, but the horn riffs and the lightly funky guitar part, and especially that strange and fluttering synth line that appears at choice moments. Today, it’s still one of the main Gabriel songs you’re likely to hear everywhere.
Back then, it was also one you saw everywhere. Gabriel’s ’80s innovation wasn’t limited to sonic territory; his early embrace of the video format really paid off during the So era with a couple of iconic works, one of which was the stop-motion clip for “Sledgehammer.” By the mid-’80s, MTV had gone from insurgent entity to an actual force. And Gabriel’s unforgettable visual was primed for that moment — it’s still regarded as one of the great music videos of the time, and it helped him garner one of those songs that everyone knows.
“In Your Eyes” (from So, 1986)
And of course, here’s the other song everyone knows. “In Your Eyes” wasn’t actually a radio hit in its day. Its life as a ubiquitous song really stems from its legendary usage in Cameron Crowe’s 1989 film Say Anything. You know the scene: John Cusack, standing outside the window with a boombox over his head blaring “In Your Eyes” as an urgent song of devotion. Removed from the specifics of the movie’s storyline, it’s a scene that’s become shorthand for the pop culture of the decade, as complete a representation of endearing ’80s melodrama as anything else.
But “In Your Eyes” is something far beyond a piece of pop culture detritus It’s a work of genius, a romantic epic that ranks as one of Gabriel’s masterpieces. It’s one of the songs where Gabriel’s fascination with non-Western arrangements is evident in subtle ways, elevating what could have turned out to be simply another mid-’80s synth ballad; part of the finale’s catharsis was due to the guest vocal from Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. The construction of “In Your Eyes” overall is impeccable, every element in perfect harmony and calibrated for the most impact — the churn of its beat, the first moment that synth part washes in over the chorus, Gabriel’s voice joining the backup singers in a paean, the way in which all these different melodic ideas wrap around each other at the conclusion to lift each other, and the song, further and further up.
It’s a colossal work of pop songcraft. Once upon a time, Gabriel wrung great music out of a more cerebral approach. That Gabriel couldn’t have written “In Your Eyes.” A middle-aged Gabriel allowed himself to, though, and in turn gave us one of the pop songs for the ages — a work overflowing with love, yearning, and pure joy.
“Mercy Street” (from So, 1986)
Like Security before it, So ostensibly had Gabriel’s most pop-minded work, but it also had some of his most mature and challenging work. The adored “Mercy Street” existed somewhere in between, an ethereal ballad that was suggestive in the way of streetlights straining to be seen through the fog and mist just before sunrise. Musically, it’s one of the most crushingly gorgeous compositions Gabriel ever released. Thematically, it’s a heavy one. Inspired by and in tribute to the poet Anne Sexton (who had died by suicide in 1974), the song has a darkness and mourning hanging over it, always haunting its periphery. Compared to the other songs So is known for, “Mercy Street” is dealing with some much different concepts. But Gabriel rendered it with care, making it another example of how years and experience gave him the ability to write with such gravity by the mid-’80s.
“Big Time” (from So, 1986)
“The place I come from/ Is a small town/ They think so small/ They use small words,” Gabriel sings, somewhat hilariously, on one of his most successful singles. “Big Time” is like “Sledgehammer” in several ways — it was a funkier workout compared to the rest of So, it found an erstwhile art-rocker cracking the US top 10, and it was accompanied by another stop-motion video that helped up its prominence. This time, there was even claymation!
“It Is Accomplished” (from Passion, 1989)
Sometimes, the yawning gaps between Gabriel’s albums weren’t quite as long as they appear on paper — those periods were often peppered with his other work with film scores. One of those was Passion, later re-released as Passion: Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ, which Gabriel composed for Martin Scorsese’s controversial Jesus film. The album is notable for several reasons. It was the first release on Real World Records, a label Gabriel started to create a home for all of the world-music artists he was infatuated with and had become inspired by, and it was a fitting introduction to this facet of Gabriel’s career.
For Passion, he collaborated with musicians from around the globe, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, and the resulting music was diverse and adventurous even by the standards he’d established for himself over the preceding decade. Diehards rank Passion amongst Gabriel’s most crucial work, and there are indeed captivating songs throughout. One of those is “It Is Accomplished,” a piece that begins with a frightening outburst but soon yields, bottling transcendence up into aural form.
“Shaking The Tree” (from Shaking The Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats, 1990)
In 1990, Gabriel released his first greatest hits collection, a compilation that borrowed its name from a song he performed with Youssou N’Dour. Gabriel had already collaborated with N’Dour — there was the aforementioned vocal on “In Your Eyes,” but N’Dour was also one of the musicians who had contributed to Passion — and “Shaking The Tree” originated on N’Dour’s 1989 album The Lion. The version included on Gabriel’s own Shaking The Tree was a new 1990 re-recording, similarly to how he had tweaked “Here Comes The Flood” and other inclusions, that had added vocals from Gabriel. As you might expect, it sounds a bit different than completely solo Gabriel material, an overall sunnier and effervescent outing that featured Gabriel’s and N’Dour’s voices playing off of each other.
“Blood Of Eden” (from Us, 1992)
By the time Gabriel returned with his next real album in 1992, he had explored a lot of other musical territory outside of his own work. So Us came packed with ideas. Several songs sprawled to six or seven minutes and felt gigantic for all the textures layering on top of each other; some, as it went with artists akin to Gabriel, suffered from his disposition coming across a little more adult-contemporary thanks to ’90s production techniques. When it worked, there were some effective exercises in maximalism. But elsewhere, it also connected when Gabriel let songs have lots of space to breathe, like in the airy and ruminative “Blood Of Eden.” And like he’d teamed with Kate Bush over the years, “Blood Of Eden” featured Gabriel duetting with Sinead O’Connor.
“Washing Of The Water” (from Us, 1992)
At the center of Us was another one of its more spare tracks, “Washing Of The Water.” Considering the song almost sounds like an old spiritual, it’s appropriately stripped down to only a few core elements, a simple bit of percussion and some nice horn augmentations. Mostly, it’s a showcase for Gabriel’s voice, in all the glorious graininess of his late ’80s/early ’90s era. Fun fact: When Chris Martin spoke at Gabriel’s 2014 Rock & Roll Hall OF Fame induction, he covered “Washing Of The Water” after calling it his favorite Gabriel song. That is a pretty random choice, but not a bad one!
“Digging In The Dirt” (from Us, 1992)
“Digging In The Dirt” was the lead single, and one of the highlights, from Us. Grappling with various personal life struggles for Gabriel at the time, it’s a shape-shifting track: All while riding a persistent groove, “Digging In The Dirt” is first gently undulating, then gives way to aggrieved and self-lacerating outbursts, and finally locates hope when Gabriel makes his way to the title and sings of opening up “the places I got hurt.” The fact that it all rides that same groove is pivotal for the themes. As the years pile up and one personal struggle or another persists, cycles can lock you in if you don’t consciously break them. That’s the sound of “Digging In The Dirt,” an elliptical pattern with Gabriel trying to fight his way out, trying to heal.
“No Way Out” (from Up, 2002)
When Gabriel released Up, it had been a full 10 years since his preceding solo album. And as many experimentally-minded musicians of his generation as well as young rock bands did around the turn of the century, he wound up employing a lot of thick, then-cutting-edge electronics. Maybe it’s just that the sounds associated with his ’80s work are more in vogue today, or maybe it’s the inherent disjuncture that sometimes comes with an artist trying to adapt to the sound of too many passing eras, but the aesthetic of Up is often what sinks it. (You also have to wonder if such a long stretch between releases means some songs gestated for far too long; by the time Up came out, a lot of the songs already sounded dated.) But no Gabriel album is without its worthwhile moments, and Up did have “No Way Out,” a slow-burn contemplation that was a more appropriate backdrop for the gravel of a now-50-something Gabriel and all the places he’d seen in his life.
“Heroes” (from Scratch My Back, 2010)
Originally, Gabriel intended to follow Up rather quickly with an album known as I/O. This … did not happen. It is 16 years later and that album has yet to materialize. At various points, Gabriel has said he was finishing up songs, was back in the studio, or that the album actually still really just existed in the idea stage. Who knows if that album will ever see the light of day, or if a completely different project will eventually succeed Up.
In the interim, though, Gabriel did embark on a different endeavor: At the beginning of the decade, he released two orchestral albums, Scratch My Back and New Blood. The former was a series of covers, featuring Gabriel performing material by the likes of Radiohead, Elbow, Bon Iver, Talking Heads, and Arcade Fire in the hopes that these artists would return the favor and cover his songs. This process took a while, so he wound up doing New Blood, and rearranging his own material within the same orchestral framework as Scratch My Back. Eventually, there was a sequel called And I’ll Scratch Yours that mostly achieved what Gabriel had initially set out to do (though lacking certain artists’ participation, like Radiohead).
Look, if this all sounds like the kind of dalliance of an aged classic rocker who doesn’t have much left in the creative tank well … yeah, it sort of feels that way. When you’ve released music as infrequently as Gabriel in recent decades, it’s hard to look at something like Scratch My Back and not wonder why this is what he deems worth his time and focus. That being said, there are moments on Scratch My Back where you start to feel it justifying its existence, like when Gabriel sings “Heroes,” from his contemporary and influence David Bowie.
“Heroes” is, of course, an oft-covered selection; it’s also one of the most perfect songs in the pop idiom, and very few of those renditions even touch it. Gabriel’s, like much of the material on the orchestral albums, rebuilds the entire thing from the ground up. But there’s something impactful in hearing an older Gabriel, re-interpreting a song from an era in which he was just starting to seek out his own identity as a solo artist, and presenting it in this form. His version of “Heroes” begins fragile, Gabriel barely over a cracked whisper. But when he reaches the lines “I/ I can remember/ Standing by the wall,” the song opens up, Gabriel’s voice intensifying over a slashing, soaring backdrop of strings. It’s a reminder that Gabriel often has the capability to approach sublimity in his music, that he’s capable of communicating startling beauty.
Perhaps we’ll get to hear him do that in new, original material again sometime. But as of right now, Scratch My Back and New Blood sit as post-scripts to Gabriel’s career. And for all its unconventional turns, there’s actually something sort of resonant about the idea that it ends here, with him returning to the past and offering his take on a classic, imbued with a few decades’ worth of accrued wisdom.
Listen to the playlist, minus the songs that are not yet available, on Spotify.