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Peter Gabriel Abandons Role as King of PC Pop

New-Wave Artist Turns to Tales of Love instead of World Problems

By Dante E. A. ramos


Peter Gabriel, on Geffen Records

Popular musicians used to care about love. Ever since Elvis crooned "Love Me Tender," every good rock song has dealt with getting love, getting laid or getting dissed.

But then the sixties and the early seventies happened, and the sincere, albeit corny, emotion that rock songs used to express nearly disappeared. One crop of rockers-cum-poets--The Doors, for example--began ruminating musically about life and death, while the Bob Dylans of the world broadcast political messages. Meanwhile, the peppy, soulful melodies of early rock turned minor-key introspective.

The early work of British rocker Peter Gabriel, whose new album Us on come out on Tuesday, followed all three trends. Gabriel's group Genesis joined solid musicianship to an arty attitude and used both to produce a string of murky, meandering albums. Clinging to rock's new-wave margins, Gabriel subsequently released three solo albums, all self-titled, and then a fourth, named Security. He filled all four with rock philosophy and single-issue politics.

But despite the pretense, Gabriel's early solo songs were brilliant. "Humdrum" is set to accompany Gabriel's aesthetically pleasant, if vague, worldview: "As a bull, so a dove; as below, so above." His "Family Snapshot" painted a sympathetic musical picture of a Lee Harvey Oswald so tormented by his upbringing that he had to shoot a president.

Peter Gabriel became one of rock's great storytellers. Almost all of Gabriel's songs were about someone, or something. "San Jacinto" was his song about Native Americans. "Biko" was his song about a murdered South African activist. "Intruder" was his song about burglars. An issue became a song, and each song told a tale.

Not so anymore. In 1986, Gabriel started to care about love and sex. He released So, an album whose first single, "Sledgehammer," contained such provocative lines as, "Show me around your fruitcage/ 'cause I will be your honeybee." Sure, Gabriel still included "Don't Give Up," the whimper of an unemployed worker on the verge of suicide. But "In Your Eyes" was a love song--unabashedly so. It even made the soundtrack to the teen film Say Anything. Gabriel had changed.

"In Your Eyes" also foreshadowed another departure from Gabriel's early work. Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour performed background vocals on the track; that's right, an African harmony appeared in the avant-garde British musician's song. In 1989, Gabriel cemented his place in the fraternity of Western world-beat rockers--Paul Simon and David Byrne are the other members--when he released Passion, the Middle East-tinged soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ.

Gabriel's new album demonstrates that neither So nor Passion was a momentary detour. Gabriel doesn't tell political stories or paint psychological portraits these days. Instead, he explores relationships almost exclusively--Gabriel dedicates the album to his parents, to his ex-wife, to his children and to former girlfriend Rosanna Arquette--and he accompanies his musings with a combination of world beat, rock and synthesizer-driven pop.

If the album's first single, "Digging in the Dirt," is about anything, it's about lust and unabating pain. "Something in me, dark and sticky/ All the time it's getting strong," Gabriel sings, accompanied by djembe, tama, surdu, keyboards and more conventional rock instruments. The pain shows up in the chorus: "I'm digging in the dirt/ To find the places I got hurt."

"Digging in the Dirt," with its abrupt mood changes and exotic instrumentation, might seem an unusual choice for a first single. But there's little other radio-friendly material here. Those seeking "In Your Eyes II" might not want to fork over eleven bucks for Us. The tender "Come Talk to Me," Upbeat "Kiss That Frog" and funky "Steam" may find commercial success, but "Fourteen Black Paintings" and "Only Us," the album's big clunkers, probably won't. Most of Us is well-crafted, but unaccessible; it doesn't fit easily into any of the categories--rock, pop and alternative--that radio stations use to pick their programming.

Though Gabriel's music still strays from the mainstream, his sentiments may meet with broader popular acceptance. Cynics and longtime Gabriel aficionados might scoff at the musician's emergent concern for broken hearts, but the emotionalism evident on Us usually works. "You lie there with your eyes half-closed/ Like there's no one there at all/ There's a tension pulling on your face/ Come on, come talk to me," Gabriel laments. Sinead O'Connor adds a fantastic background vocal.

But sometimes Gabriel's lyrics betray his inexperience at writing love songs. Bad rhyme abounds. In "Secret World," Gabriel sings, "Seeing things that were not there/ On a wing, on a prayer/ In this state of disrepair." Us exhibits the same flaws as U2's generally slick Achtung Baby, lyrics suffer when the Irish protest band recorded a dance-rock album.

Usually, however, it doesn't matter if the lyrics are cheesy if the music is good. Witness U2's "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses." World-beat influences make most songs on Us, seductive. Gabriel's earliest work undoubtedly packs more intellectual power than Us, but the new album boasts a certain visceral appeal.

Although Peter Gabriel has given up on storytelling, Us is a solid album. Maybe it's good that Gabriel has loosened up. Loved, laid and dissed, he may have accumulated enough emotional baggage to make rock's founders proud.

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