Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Peter Gabriel i/o

Real World
Real World

It’s not the first Peter Gabriel album of my lifetime, but it’s close. The English art-pop musician and prog-rock pioneer will release his first album of new material this Friday, 21 years removed from his last, and the long wait has paid off in the final output. i/o is a meticulously assembled arena rock album about nature and time, a major new statement from an aging rock legend.

Since his 2002 album Up, Gabriel has been busy with “a third music, a third technology, internet stuff and a third charitable things of one sort or another,” as he put it in a recent interview with recording magazine Tape Op. Over the years, Gabriel referenced work on a new album in interviews, but he seemed to settle into legacy mode, with mixed results: arena tours celebrating So or co-headlining with Sting, contributing songs to WALL-E and other vastly inferior films, a haphazard mutual covers album project called Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours, even an orchestral re-recordings project. This publication referred to Peter Gabriel’s elusive next album as “the SMiLE (or perhaps the Chinese Democracy) of art-rock” in 2013.

And then, suddenly, like Chinese Democracy, it was real and it was spectacular. i/o was announced in November 2022 and unveiled in an elaborate year-long roll-out. Gabriel released a new single each full moon in 2023, with cover art from renowned artists like Nick Cave, Ai Weiwei, and Cornelia Parker. The album has multiple mixes, including a Dolby Atmos mix on Blu-ray disc, designed to be pored over by audiophile super-fans: “I liked what Spike [Stent] and Tchad [Blake] both did so I thought, ‘Why don’t we just have both,’ so the nerds can have long discussions about the merits of each,” he told MOJO.

Gone are the sinister narrators of his still-fascinating early solo albums. On i/o, Gabriel writes about the modern world with a compassionate patience that only comes with age (I assume). The album opens with two songs that address the social consequences of surveillance unburdened by buzzwords. “Panopticom” imagines a techno-utopia of surveillance for the people on the powerful with strobing acoustic guitars. On “The Court,” Gabriel intones about missing data over a mechanical beat that gives way to a lurching bassline by reliable supporting player Tony Levin like an alibi collapsing under scrutiny.

i/o’s main theme is humanity’s connection to nature. “We like to pretend that we live in this man-made environment and we’re independent and isolated, but actually we’re dependent very much on the planet that gave us birth,” Gabriel wrote in a press release. The title track sums up life as a series of inputs and outputs, from one organism to another: “Stuff coming out, stuff going in/ I’m just a part of everything,” he sings like a nursery rhyme. He imagines laying to rest under an oak tree, and the music crescendos to a chorus with guitar shimmer and vocal support from the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Clearly, this is an album that has been futzed over ad nauseam. It features dozens of other musicians and additional production from XL Recordings head Richard Russell and Brian Eno. In a recent interview, former Gabriel collaborator Jerry Marotta relayed a story from his friend Tchad Blake, who took several days to mix a song with 120 tracks. Gabriel replied “That’s amazing. That’s the best I’ve ever heard that song sound,” only to return the next day with 30 more tracks to add. After decades of studio experimentation, it seems Gabriel has become a tinkerer, but he recognizes the limits of his perfectionism: “It would be nice to do simple versions of all my different songs. Sometimes people don’t hear the song through all the ‘crap’ as much as I like the ‘crap’.”

Gabriel’s new songs are dressed up in intricate arrangements that fit them perfectly. “Four Kinds Of Horses” is about the dangers of fanaticism, and the trip-hop beat throbs with menace. “Road To Joy” is aptly named, a disco groove with chintzy synths about breaking out of isolation and getting the blood flowing any number of ways. It’s rivaled for sheer joy by “Olive Tree,” where a horn section blooms as Gabriel sings of sunlight and cool breeze on his skin in the chorus.

At 73, Gabriel still sounds amazing, and the weathered quality in his voice enhances his ballads about grappling with mortality. “And Still” is a tribute to his mother that aches with memories of her at their home, incarnate in candles and coats. “Playing For Time” reflects on generations aging and stars blinking out of existence over spare piano chords. The songs feel like the spiritual bookends to the young man heard starting a new journey on “Solsbury Hill,” and they can be difficult to listen to for the sheer vulnerability on display.

I grew up listening to Peter Gabriel with my dad, who became a fan when he saw “Shock The Monkey” on MTV in high school. He soundtracked our weekly trips to the comic book store with Security and the then-new Up, my head filling with undeciphered symbolism as I sang along to the metaphysics of “Growing Up.” I remember being perplexed and intrigued that the artist responsible for the harsh clattering and screams of “The Rhythm of The Heat” was also the guy dancing with a chicken in the “Sledgehammer” video and bouncing in a zorb onstage in the Growing Up Live DVD. When we sang along to “Don’t Give Up” at his 2016 tour, it was a major moment of catharsis for us both after a year of family upheaval.

So we were seated comfortably for the Chicago stop of the i/o tour this past September. As on the record, Gabriel made no secret of his age; he opened with a joke that his onstage body with 20 additional years of age was merely an avatar, and the real him was elsewhere on a beach with a six pack. But he was decidedly not in legacy mode. Half of the set was dedicated to new and unreleased material, and in the nine-piece band’s capable hands the new songs sounded like worthy successors to classics like “Big Time” and “Red Rain.” I shed a few tears during Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s solos on “Don’t Give Up” and “Playing For Time,” and we walked out of the United Center with the chants from “Biko” still ringing in our heads.

The tour program included a bio of each musician, an interview with each visual artist involved in the art for the singles, and essays on scientific subjects that inspired the new songs, like inter-species communication, artificial intelligence, and benevolent crowdsourced surveillance technology. It’s difficult to think of another artist in Peter Gabriel’s cohort that could even release an album with new ideas on this scale. Sting has sold his catalog to Universal and licensed “Roxanne” to Swedish House Mafia. David Byrne is still recording new albums, but his ongoing prominence is largely based on his contributions to Talking Heads — literally, in the case of the recent Stop Making Sense re-release. David Bowie’s illness and death prevented any performances of The Next Day and Blackstar, two albums much darker and thornier than i/o.

i/o is decidedly optimistic, even in the face of mass surveillance, extremism, and climate change. Songs titles like “Love Can Heal” and “Live And Let Live” can elicit easy eye-rolls from cynics, but Gabriel transcends cliché through his conviction. “There’s no point in being a pessimist because that greatly reduces your chance of survival,” he told MOJO.

And Peter Gabriel knows how to endure. His recording career straddles the growth of rock music from schoolboy fantasia to global spectacle, and he’s already teasing his next album, whenever it may arrive. i/o feels like advice from an elder relative, and I know I’ll cherish it long after he’s gone.

i/o is out 12/1 via Real World.

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