ABOVE THE CURRENT
Earlier this autumn, I had the privilege of watching Peter Gabriel hold an audience enthralled with the most alluring, crepuscular, and oddly atmospheric music of his career—a searing sound not usually the stuff of arena-show attentiveness. What was most magical and strange about this challenging music—the strains of his new LP i/o—and the power it held over this beer-soaked, sold-out crowd was that Gabriel’s lushly complex songs were foreign to its live listeners. Yet unlike audiences who walk out when they don’t hear the hits, no one could move or deny its embrace; no one shouted out for him to play Nursery Cryme or “Biko.” No one could yell at all, as each of us was mesmerized.
Hearing the complete i/o now—Gabriel’s 10th studio album, decades in the making, and his first full-length recording of new original material in over two decades—and its tweaky listening options of “Bright-Side,” “Dark-Side,” and the audience-interactive “In-Side” mix, the vocalist and composer again puts his listening audience in a unique situation: Do we stay and play Gabriel’s game and get deeply involved, or do we go for beer? Regaling the listener with broadly poetic tales of ordinary, bite-sized madness, aging, earthly (and lunar) concerns, and how it all connects to the circle of life, love and death, the entirety of i/o is simpler and sparer than its concert version belied, and with it, more daringly melodic.
While the new album’s title track has the anthemic, even populist feel of Gabriel’s signature universally vibing hits (think “In Your Eyes,” “Solsbury Hill,” and “Sledgehammer”), i/o’s broader melodic strokes stick to your mind’s eye, such as the edgily somnolent likes of “Panopticom” and the anti-fundamentalist rant of “Four Kinds of Horses.” The ravages and concessions of age play a crucial role within the framework of i/o. When he’s not saddened by a body that “stiffens, tires, and aches in its wrinkled, blotchy skin” on “So Much,” and a spirit content to let “the young move to the center” on the climactic “Playing for Time,” Gabriel is seeking to—as the closing track puts it—“live and let live,” to exist inventively in a moment of hope where “love can heal.”
And though he continues to record with old friends such as David Rhodes, Tchad Blake, Brian Eno, and Tony Levin, and warm his brassiest moments such as “Olive Tree” with a silver mute, i/o sounds like everything and nothing Peter Gabriel has executed in his past.