everyone goes through two periods of knowing me
when they mock me for listening to peter gabriel
and when they start to believe—Riley Byrne
Three years ago, I knew exactly three things about Peter Gabriel: that he was the original frontman of Genesis, that he wrote some great songs for Pixar’s Wall-E, and that he sounded like a slightly raspy Phil Collins. Most of my knowledge of the guy came through my dad or the slightly Pete Gabe-obsessed man quoted above. But something happened after picking up the 25th anniversary rerelease of So for the former this Christmas. Maybe it was the sound quality—most of Gabriel’s songs sound like they could have been recorded last year—or the variety of the music or those funky world beats, but Peter Gabriel has become one of my favourite artists in the last month.
“Shock the Monkey” got the ball rolling, I believe. In and of itself, it contains many of Gabriel’s best elements as a writer and musician: cryptic lyrics, multiple layers of instrumentation and a great ear for percussion. Listening to it, I suspect he might have unconsciously influenced Nine Inch Nails and Tool years later (I say unconsciously because, to my knowledge, neither Trent Reznor nor the members of Tool have mentioned Gabriel as an inspiration).
I think in order to fully appreciate Gabriel as an artist, you have to take one or two steps back and consider the entirety of his nearly 40 year career. Most artists who keep going for that long tend to peter out after a couple decades or so—while I’m not a huge Rolling Stones fan, it’s safe to say that they haven’t written a really good album (at least on par with their greatest) since the early ’80s. And as much as I love David Bowie, he has Never Let Me Down and everything involving Tin Machine on his track record.
Gabriel has never really had that lull or dip in quality. Whenever he’s gotten to the point where he might slip up, like after a commercially and critically successful album, he’s instead gone in a completely unexpected and novel direction. For example, he followed the hugely acclaimed So with his awesome world beat score for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. I’m starting to think a lot of artists could take a leaf or two out of Mr. Gabriel’s book.
Whether you’re a long-time fan or a newcomer like myself, I highly recommend you check out New Blood, Gabriel’s 2011 album consisting of fully orchestrated re-recordings of some of his best known songs. “The Rhythm of the Heat,” the sadly overlooked opening track from Gabriel’s fourth solo album, once again starts off a record and to hear it in its symphonic form is an almost transcendent experience. “Intruder” is absolutely terrifying, “In Your Eyes” more moving than ever and “Solsbury Hill” absolutely delightful. I confess to having not one but two of those string quartet renditions of rock albums in my personal collection, but as cool as those are (in an incredibly niche way) nothing compares to the artist his or herself coming on to arrange it.
I’m thinking it took me such a long time to get into the guy because, in spite being a prolific and successful artist, he doesn’t put himself in the limelight as often as other artists of similar quality do. When he does, it’s magnificent—I sorely regret not having been into him when he was touring for New Blood—but he seems to only emerge not for the sake of his fans or the music public but when he feels he actually has something to say. And I can’t help but respect that.