The Blind Spots #2: Late-Period Peter Gabriel Albums

The Blind Spots #2: Late-Period Peter Gabriel Albums

Welcome to The Blind Spots, a recurring series where I engage with an artist's discography (or a part of that discography) with which I'm woefully unfamiliar. My first installment was all the way back in October, and in it, I ranked The Rolling Stones' post-1981 material based on how long I could listen to each album before being compelled to turn it off.

This time, I'm tackling the sporadic but well-received four albums (one is just covers) that Peter Gabriel has released since his commercial peak of 1986's "So." Unlike the first Blind Spots, though, I brought along a guide. With me today is writer, musician, and dyed-in-the-wool PG fan, Jack Riedy. Our following email conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Hey what’s up, Jack? First off, a sincere thank you for hopping into my DMs and suggesting a collaborative “Blind Spots” post on Peter Gabriel! This was sparked when I randomly tweeted a picture of my vinyl copy of his 1986 blockbuster, So, a while back. You had just written a great essay/review for Stereogum about his latest album, which made it clear that he means a lot to you.

My experience with PG, on the other hand, is mostly limited to So and 1980’s weirder Peter Gabriel (dude went full Led Zeppelin and self-titled his first four albums, so this one’s usually referred to as Peter Gabriel 3 or Melt, due to the album art). I’m not a huge Genesis guy—the only eras of the band I’ve given enough of a full shake to enjoy are 1972’s Foxtrot and the cheesy (used non-derogatorily) mid-1980s period, and only the former features PG. Of course I know a few of his hits outside of these albums, but he’s one of several artists with whom I have a weird “super into a couple albums, ignorant of the rest” relationship. 

We’re here to discuss PG’s later releases, namely 1992’s Us, 2002’s Up, 2010’s covers album Scratch My Back, and last December’s i/o. Right off the bat, I’ve got to say that this was much more enjoyable for me than my previous Rolling Stones edition of The Blind Spots. But before we dig into Us, let’s dig into you

Tell me about your relationship with PG’s music—where it began, how it has evolved, and why it has persisted in your life.

Jack Riedy: Happy to be here Patrick. I’ve been a Peter Gabriel fan all my life so I’m excited to discuss him with an erudite listener. He is one of my dad’s favorite artists—he’s on the older side of Gen X, so he first became aware of Gabriel’s music through seeing the "Shock the Monkey" video on MTV when he was in high school. So came out when he was 21 and he’d caught up on the rest of the solo albums by "the guy who used to be in Genesis."

My parents would play music around my sister and I from a young age, and I spent many afternoons ripping CDs from my dad’s collection to the family computer, then to my iPod. Peter Gabriel stuck with me. His work contains so many sounds of indeterminate origin but his voice always cuts through the din. And I’ve always liked artists who try out a lot of styles: Bowie, Badu, Trent Reznor, Jack White, Kanye—and I wrote a book on Prince.

Melt is a good one, what’s your favorite song on there? My favorite [album of his] is 1982’s Peter Gabriel aka Peter Gabriel IV aka Security. PG and his collaborators invented amazing synth and drum sounds serving cynical and paranoid lyrics, and its dawn of the computer age aesthetic has been an influence on my own music. Anyone interested in PG should check out this ITV documentary about the album’s recording, where he talks about basing each song around a unique rhythm and shows them smashing glassware and television sets to use as percussion.

Shout out to Papa Riedy! Despite getting a ton of my musical taste and curiosity from my parents, and having similar memories of ripping their vast CD collection onto iTunes in the mid-2000s, neither of them like PG. Coincidentally enough, my earliest memory of his music hearing “Shock The Monkey” in public with my mom and her being like, “I hate this song.” 

My favorite songs on Melt are “Games Without Frontiers” and “Biko.” Not sure where I heard the former—it was long before I’d heard most other PG material—but it instantly connected with me. It still sounds futuristic. And “Biko,” man, what can you even say about that one? So epic, so powerful.

Us (1992)

My first impressions of this one: 

1) Completely coincidentally, I watched Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ (score composed by Peter “The Angel” Gabriel) just a matter of days before we hatched this idea. In ways both obvious (“Blood of Eden”) and not (some vague Middle Eastern sonics), this album seems like a continuation of that score. 

2) Throughout the ‘80s, critics couldn’t stop talking about PG’s affinity for “world music,” AKA the antiquated, Westernized term for anything outside of the UK and USA. This feels like his last album that carries that fascination with international sounds.

Am I off-base on these knee-jerk reactions?

Great timing on Temptation! Gabriel does have a nice, easily compartmentalized career. “Well, the good thing about a soundtrack is you get to do an instrumental album and someone else pays for it,” he told Tape Op last year. As a result, he’s written songs and scores for films that range from Scorcese down to the simply inscrutable. Last Temptation is certainly one of his best, and Us carries over several elements like the duduk and surdo and tabla percussion.

The credits are deep on this album. Sinéad O'Connor is a lovely counterpoint to Gabriel’s vocals on “Eden” and album opener “Come Talk To Me.” What a legend! John Paul Jones is on there, and Leo Nocentelli of the Meters plays the slinky guitar on “Digging in the Dirt." 

I don’t come back to Us often, but I like that it tapped into the sounds of the era: trip hop, sampledelica, big-budget gospel pop, plus the non-Western influences. The Raw Stylus remix of “Digging in the Dirt” adds piano stabs a la Primal Scream’s “Loaded”, and the motherfucking Bomb Squad added hip-hop drums to a “Steam” remix. 

What did you make of the lyrics? I think the Biblical/mythological imagery is a natural continuation of Gabriel’s songwriting in So, and it also feels zeitgeisty, at least in retrospect. The repeating images of animal urges and original sin feel Cobain-adjacent.

You’re right that his later work avoids the non-Western modes and instrumentation of Us, though he continued to record with a gigantic roster of international musicians. I’m no expert on “world music” as a genre and marketing classifier, but I do think Peter Gabriel has been a genuine cultural diplomat through WOMAD Festival and Real World Records. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, drummer Jerry Marotta suggested that Gabriel brought in Black band members, including drummer Manu Katche, to dodge accusations of appropriation. But I don’t doubt Gabriel’s sincerity after watching him perform “Biko” to an arena audience 46 years after the subject’s martyrdom under South African apartheid.

I hadn’t looked at the album credits until now, but you’re absolutely right, it’s so stacked (also of note for me: Daniel Lanois and William Orbit!). Now that I’m relistening to the Sinéad songs, I can’t believe I didn’t realize it was her on the first go-round. Those remixes are wild, too. Gabriel seems to have maintained remarkably good taste in collaborators throughout his career. 

The lyrics on Us are certainly of a piece, which is admirable, but they do at times feel a tad pretentious to me. I bet if I spent more time with it, and read interviews he did about this period of working on Temptation and this album, it’d make more sense to me. 

RE: the whole “world music” thing, it’s interesting to think about Gabriel alongside Paul Simon, who got a ton of shit for appropriating (and in many cases, not properly crediting) the POC musicians he brought in to record with him on Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. Simon was very flip about the whole thing, even allegedly telling a member of Los Lobos, “sue me, see what happens.” By comparison, Gabriel has seemed genuinely invested in both the music and political support of impoverished/inequality-stricken countries. Even if it’s to protect his own ass, it’s more than many white musicians have done. 

Photo of the "i/o" tour program provided by Jack Riedy

I've been getting into the first few Sinéad albums this year after reading the excellent book Why Sinéad O'Connor Matters, and her early music definitely fits into the pan-genre, global influence thing that PG was going for in the early '90s.

Paul Simon is an interesting comparison. I wonder how much of that difference in crediting musicians is generational - the two men are similar in age but Simon has been incredibly famous for at least a decade longer than PG. Maybe he got a little too big for his britches by the Graceland era.

Up (2002)

In our initial exchange under my aforementioned tweet involving So, you described Up as “PG doing Nine Inch Nails instrumentals,” which I think is very true of the 75% of the album that I enjoyed. Tracks like “Darkness,” “Growing Up,” and “My Head Sounds Like That” are just such impressive blends of turn-of-the-millennium heaviness with PG’s usual synthy spiritualism. But I have to ask, what in the living fuck is up with “The Barry Williams Show”? One of my most unpleasant listening experiences in recent memory.

This was really where I was introduced to Peter Gabriel. I was only seven years old when it came out and my dad played it around the house and in the car all the time. Dad’s also a big NIN fan, and you can hear their influence in Up’s digital squalor. Did you hear the Trent Reznor remix of the title track?

Up is heavy! Gabriel poured his more global ideas into OVO, his ungainly soundtrack for a London Millennium Dome show, and went back to the bad vibes of his ‘80s work on this one. “Darkness” goes so hard. I remember struggling to imagine what sort of scraping and screams could create that opening riff.

I also knew these tunes from the Growing Up Live tour DVD, which my dad would often cue up while grading tests on the weekends. Check out the title track, where he gets inside a ball (“Zorb”) and rolls and bounces around the stage. A formative intro to the world of rock’n’roll stage gimmicks.

I’m thrilled you brought up “The Barry Williams Show.” I loved this song as a kid. I read a lot of macabre stories by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, etc. in middle school, so I was attuned to a particularly dark British sense of humor, but even then I was surprised that this grim showbiz satire was released as the lead single. It’s a trip hop parody of anything goes daytime TV with an inappropriately triumphant chorus. Peter Gabriel half-raps garish lyrics poking at cheap taboos. S/O Andy Greene for calling it “quite possibly the worst song he's ever released going all the way back to the earliest days of Genesis in 1967." Listening today, the song reminds me of Gregg Alexander’s “The Truth,” it’s so misguided that I respect it. 

Up is good though! I would have liked to see a Peter Gabriel and Linkin Park tour in 2003 if he wasn’t terminally unhip at that time. If you were going to Collision Course this album with a rapper, who would it be?

Again, thanks for hipping me to a sick remix. Honestly, I’d Collision Course this album with NIN, and I’d be even more excited for something like a co-headlining tour where NIN serves as Gabriel’s backing band and he sings the cleaner parts on some of their songs. If I had to choose a “rapper” though, I think my choice is Tricky from Massive Attack.

I appreciate the “Barry Williams Show” backstory. I still think it’s dogshit, but the best thing I can say about it has upgraded from “it’s a car wreck I can’t look away from” to “interesting in theory, not in execution.” 

Man, a NIN + Peter Gabriel tour would have been fantastic, though I'm sure it would be hard to top the NIN + Bowie tour circa "I'm Afraid of Americans." Haha, I like Tricky as a featured rapper. Feels like Peter Gabriel + Tricky should have already been united on a Gorillaz track sometime in the last 10 years.

Scratch My Back (2010)

I’m not trying to deliver a hot take here, but this might shock you: front-to-back, I think this was my favorite listen of all four of these albums. The only PG song in this entire four-album stretch that I was familiar with prior to this was his version of Bowie's “Heroes." Despite my issues with the show and its soundtrack, I think it was used brilliantly in Stranger Things. I was delighted to discover that the full album maintains the “PG with an orchestra” vibe. Though not everything hits quite as hard, it’s also a testament to this man’s great taste in music, new and old. I remember this receiving decent reviews for an old fogey’s covers album, but I’m curious what a PG diehard thinks about this album.

I’m glad you dug this album so much! I do wish there was a proper Peter Gabriel album for the ‘10s. Instead, some of the most important bands of my teen years looked to Peter Gabriel to scale up their sound. Artists like Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, St. Vincent each recombined Gabriel’s studio experimentation and big-hearted melodies.

I’m sure the orchestral covers album was canny marketing for a procrastinating perfectionist: “I’ll remind people how influential I’ve been on a few generations of musicians, and show off my good taste along the way.” After he put out this orchestral covers album, Gabriel released re-recordings of his old songs (pre-Taylor’s Version) as New Blood, then toured with a full orchestra. I admit it: I was worried he was going to be stuck in this mode forever after.

The orchestral mode is just not for me. Feels overwrought at album length. I hear a cover this slow and self-serious and I assume there’s a movie trailer playing in another tab of my browser. I do agree that the “Heroes” moment in the first season of Stranger Things is top notch, and I respect pulling a Talking Heads deep cut.

Did you check out the follow-up collection of other artists covering PG, And I’ll Scratch Yours? Several bands declined to reciprocate a cover - pretty funny!

I’m not surprised that a more devoted PG fan doesn’t dig this as much as I do. I just think his voice has such gravity here, and the string arrangements are incredible. Your opinion makes a lot of sense with the added context of New Blood though—no one wants to see their favorite artist hit their “Vegas residency” era. 

Just skimmed through And I’ll Scratch Yours, and in keeping with my recent newsletter on the forthcoming Talking Heads tribute album, I’m not super interested in tribute albums like this. The choices are almost uniformly obvious, and the Bon Iver and Arcade Fire ones in particular grate on me. I’m more interested in the covers by Gabriel’s contemporaries. Of course Randy Newman chose “Big Time”—that’s awesome. Of course Lou Reed chose the most cheerful, upbeat song (“Solsbury Hill”) and made it weird—that’s awesome. Of fucking course Paul Simon chose “Biko”—that just adds to my aforementioned opinion of him. 

Totally agree, the old guys really show out on I'll Scratch Yours. "Big Time" is so perfect for Randy Newman, and he really brings out the central American-ness of the lyric. The Lou cover intrigues me too—I've never listened to his Metallica collab album or much of his late-late period, but "Solsbury Hill" is a compelling teaser. 

i/o (2023)

For me, this is the inverse of Up. Whenever PG’s in industrial mode here, I’m kinda checked out despite it still sounding cool. I just don’t think a 73-year-old’s gonna write the best dystopian fiction about the 2020s. But my god, the more heartfelt numbers on here wrecked me. I thought the one-two punch of “Playing For Time” and “I/O” early on were particularly poignant, some of the most astute and tuneful songs about aging that I’ve heard since Bowie’s final albums. But then again, I only listened to one of the three mixes he released of this entire album (the "In-Side" one). Do you feel similarly, and do the alternate mixes affect your opinion at all?

That’s interesting that the uptempo industrial songs don’t appeal to you as much here. I will say that he is absolutely serious regarding those sci-fi themes. The tour program is a hefty magazine featuring essays on scientific subjects that inspired the new songs, like inter-species communication, benevolent crowdsourced surveillance technology, and in the case of “Playing for Time”, The Long Now Foundation’s Millennium Clock. It’s charming! 

i/o is clearly the product of many revisions and reiterations, and I think it was worth the 21-year wait, depending on how you count his interim releases. You can tell that as he advances further into his 70s, Gabriel only wants to put out music with real feeling and ideas behind it. The ballads are even more affecting as his voice ages like leather. “And Still” is a beautiful remembrance of his mother. How did you like “Road To Joy"? That’s one of my favorite songs on the album, and one of few with a real groove.

I tried not to get too caught up in the various mixes of this album, though PG certainly has baited his audiophile fans here. I did appreciate writer and engineer Hannah Jocelyn’s recent virgin Spike Stent vs. tChad Blake joke. FWIW I bought the Dark Side (Tchad Blake) Mix on vinyl due to its focus on the low end. I’m a bassist, and I love Tony Levin’s playing.

I’m glad you brought up Bowie, as I believe i/o is a fantastic late-in-life album on par with Blackstar or Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe. What are your favorite albums by artists in their 70s or older?

Photo of the "i/o" tour program provided by Jack Riedy

In terms of him as a man in his mid-70s, it’s sick to me that PG is legitimately about that sci-fi shit. Maybe it’s more that my favorite material of his has never been the high-concept stuff. Some of those themes carry through on the songs I like on this album—the whole “stuff going in, stuff going out” lyric on the title track feels very cyborgian—but I find his unadorned perspective on real life more compelling than parables/metaphors couched in Kubrick-era clichés.

Also, in terms of songs like “Road To Joy,” I think some of the sonic choices he makes finally, for the first time in his career, feel a bit dated. Maybe I’ll warm to the idea of someone this old getting funky as I too approach old age, but at this point, I get more from the wizened, solemn (but still very fucking cool!) material.

Great question RE: Bowie’s last two albums. I think the main reason I started this feature is because I’ve historically written off most artists’ material as they approach old age.

Much of what I see written about Gabriel’s later work positions him as an exception to the rule of people falling off once they get AARP cards. That said, I’m more curious now. I still haven’t heard Leonard Cohen’s last album. If Joni Mitchell dropped something tomorrow, I’d be all over it. The singles from the upcoming Kim Gordon (age 70) album have stunned me—both of them have straight-up rage rap beats and are among the most shocking left turns I’ve ever heard an artist take at that age. 

I think as I've gotten older I've grown to appreciate artists' late-in-life work and the ways it will necessarily differ from the music of their youth. Of course The Stones might be the poster children for never letting their music age with them, God love 'em. It's been fun to dig into latter day Peter Gabriel with you! Let's do this again sometime. If you ever want to deep dive into Prince or Tom Waits, I'm your man.

Follow Jack on Twitter and order a copy of "Electric Word Life," his book about Prince, here.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #20

Note: shorter list than usual because I've spent a good portion of the week laid up with a stomach virus (such fun!).

2hollis - "light"

Genre: rave-pop // RIYL: Porter Robinson, Passion Pit

This song is about... hating that an ex made you walk up all the stairs to their apartment/room? I mean, I've lived in some annoying walkups in my life, but bro, that should've been the first sign that they weren't worth it. I think the lyric is hilarious though, and it adds to the shiny pettiness of "light," which sounds like Lil Uzi Vert if they were obsessed with circa-2009 Phoenix and Passion Pit rather than Paramore.

Josephine - "Another"

Genre: murky alt rock // RIYL: Radiohead's "Wierd Fishes," Hannah Frances

Josephine is a Chicago-based singer-songwriter who just released her debut EP, Leaning. "Another" is my favorite of its four tracks, a patiently building, gorgeously arranged song full of intrigue as well as melodic grandeur. I love the tight, repetitive drums, the string arrangement, and, lurking under the surface, what I'm pretty sure is a mellotron.

Sadistic Ritual - "The Recusant"

Genre: death/thrash metal // RIYL: Necrot, Wormwitch

A theme of a few of this week's tracks is "came for X, stayed for Y." In the case of Atlanta's Sadistic Ritual, my interest was piqued by a PR email about their upcoming split EP with Wormwitch, a versatile Vancouver metal band I've been a fan of for years. I listened to the one track apiece that both band had shared, and lo and behold, I was more drawn to Sadistic Ritual's. "The Recusant" is simple, breakneck fun, full of lyrics about "miscreant wizards" engaged in "government vigils," and the like. This split is out 3/22.

villagerrr feat. Merce Lemon - "Neverrr Everrr"

Genre: warped indie/alt-country/folk // RIYL: Alex G, LVL UP

Hey villagerrr, I don't know you, but I appreciate the spelling consistency in your band moniker and song title! This guy's probably sick of getting compared to Alex G, but there's enough heart and originality on "Neverrr Everrr" to make it much more than a cheap imitation (side note: this week I received a song that sounded exactly like something from Bon Iver's 22, A Million, like, right down to the artist's voice. Not gonna name names, but... why would you do that to yourself?). Anyway, this is a peach of a song, and I love the line, "Close your mouth, or I'll make you spit it out." Tear Your Heart Out is out 3/22.

Track of the Week

310babii & 03 Greedo - "no option"

Genre: Cali-meets-Michigan rap // RIYL: Payroll Giovanni, SOBxRBE

310babii is an 18-year-old rapper from Inglewood who Id never heard until this week. By contrast, featured rapper 03 Greedo and producer Helluva are two guys I've loved for years. Indeed, the ebullient "no option" greatly benefits from both of their melodious instincts, but picking a standout from 310babii's just-released album nights and weekends was harder than expected. If you like what you hear, check out "no matter what," "paul pierce" (which, despite being named for one of my least favorite NBA players of all time, slaps), and "walk," on which Cash Kidd delivers my favorite punchline of this young year: "New York Jet, he wasted money on that AR."

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson