PETER GABRIEL Birdy Music From The Film By Peter Gabriel (Charisma/Virgin)

PETER GABRIEL So (Virgin/Real World)

PETER GABRIEL Passion Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ (Virgin/Real World)

PETER GABRIEL Us (Virgin/Real World)

Peter Gabriel's music for the soundtrack to Alan Parker's film "Birdy" found him working with rising production star Daniel Lanois for the first time, but the results aren't especially auspicious. "Birdy Music From The Film By Peter Gabriel" sounds almost exactly like you might expect it to, moody, edgy and ethereal, with the occasional riff plundered from his back catalogue snaking through the scenery. Whilst it might work perfectly (i.e. unobtrusively) as part of the film, as a sustained domestic listening experience, like most specially composed soundtracks, it's too bitty and insubstantial, as drearily functional as titles such as "Slow Marimbas" and "Sketch Pad With Trumpet And Voice" might suggest. It has the odd moment, though, of which "Birdy's Flight" is probably the best, a kinetic reconstruction of "Not One Of Us" shot through with the tribal polyrhythms of his fourth untitled album. And "Under Lock And Key", based on "Wallflower", is quietly lovely.

"So" was the album that opened the "Now That's What I Call Music" nation up to Peter Gabriel's music, chiefly through the fabulous Prince-lite funk of the preceding single "Sledgehammer" and its witty accompanying claymation video. As an album it still sounds brilliant 16 years later; in fact, revisiting it in the light of Gabriel's subsequent output and with one eye on the current state of the charts it appears more astonishing than ever. Consider "Don't Give Up", for example: on one hand there's the amazed realisation that a song concerned with unemployment and the accompanying vanishing sense of self could ever crack the top ten, and on the other the thought that a great deal of what Radiohead have accomplished has roots of some kind in Peter Gabriel's work. And consider the quiet perfection of the unconventional arrangement: Tony Levin's bass playing against the distant backing vocals during the closing seconds is utterly mesmeric. The bombastic psychodrama of "Red Rain" and "That Voice Again" remain as wearing now as they were then, but "Mercy Street", written for poet Anne Sexton has, if anything, become even more luminously beautiful with the passage of time. It evokes the spirit of The Blue Nile, which is just about the greatest compliment I can pay this shifting, uncertain, subtle music. And there's still the sly dig at Phil Collins ("Big Time") and the glorious synthesis of new-fangled world music and old-fashioned romance that is "In Your Eyes", as used memorably in Cameron Crowe's debut film, "Say Anything".

What irks about this new reissue, though, is the senseless decision to jumble up the original tracklisting, meaning that "In Your Eyes" sits at the end of the album rather than halfway through. This rescheduling sabotages the album's flow: it used to dribble gently to a close with the limpid "We Do What We're Told Milgram's 37", followed by the CD bonus track "This Is The Picture Excellent Birds" (cut with Laurie Anderson, after Gabriel performed on a version of the song on her "Mister Heartbreak" album). Of course, the original running order can be easily reprogrammed, but nevertheless it seems like a wanton act of artistic sabotage has been perpetrated.

His second soundtrack album, the self explanatory "Passion Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ" makes a far more persuasive listen than his first venture in the field. As well as the usual Gabriel session mafia there are contributions from key world music figures such as Baaba Maal, Youssou N'Dour and Nusret Fateh Ali Khan. The music is a seamless mix of new compositions, traditional melodies and improvisations, and whilst it frequently regresses into the kind of background ambience that betrays its role, it's still leagues ahead of the low-octane rehashes that constitute much of his work for "Birdy". It seems impossible to remain unmoved in some fashion by the thunderous percussion approach at the climax of "The Feeling Begins", the babbling brook violin riffs throughout "Zaar", or the chiming, redemptive bells of "It Is Accomplished". As with "So" and "Us", this new reissue is winningly presented as a mini-gatefold replica of the vinyl original, the CD even sitting in an inner sleeve of its own.

In attempting to interweave his world music fascination with conventional Western song structure, "Us" is pregnant with possibilities, but ultimately promises more than it delivers. For example, the foggy bagpipes and tribal drumming of opener "Come Talk To Me" are beguiling enough, but, Lanois' trademark production apart, don't really claim any new territory not explored by "Biko" a dozen years earlier. And so "Us" goes: there might be something worthy at the core, but whatever spark these songs might have once possessed has been scrupulously multitracked away by the rumoured 100-strong cast (which includes Sinead O'Connor, Eno, Peter Hammill, John Paul Jones and old Genesis cohort Richard Macphail). This is impeccably played, mature music born of thorough self-examination, in desperate need for some of the neck-snapping melodic genius that characterises much of Gabriel's greatest work.


"Up" is Peter Gabriel's first proper studio album in a decade: work began soon after the release of his last album, "Us", but distractions have included providing soundtracks for the Millenium Dome and the film "Rabbit Proof Fence". The album's lengthy gestation period is best illustrated by the fact that it includes an appearance by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan…who died five years ago. All that time has clearly been spent constructively, as "Up" is an impressively lavish thing to behold. The vinyl edition has been produced by LA analogue specialists Classic Records, with thick card sleeves, polythene inners, chunky pressings and a booklet of photographs. The production is as immaculate as you'd expect, although the LP seems to have been cut at a surprisingly low level given the relatively short running time of each side.

But what about the music? Early impressions are that "Up" pursues the personal themes of "Us", which is something of a disappointment for listeners who relish the direct and unambiguous Gabriel of "So" or the third "Peter Gabriel". Although it would be churlish to doubt the man's sincerity or question the obvious painstaking craftsmanship involved, there's only so much entertainment value to be derived from listening to a stranger probing his neuroses for an hour. "Up" frequently resembles a therapy session set to music - to offer a random example, "Afraid of loving women/I'm scared of loving men/I own my fear/So it does not own me" - music which, at its best, sounds like late-period Talk Talk on an off day.

Opener "Darkness" is alternately lullaby-gentle and industrially raucous, the kind of uneasy juxtaposition that suggests "Up" won't be cluttering up too many coffee tables in the near future. Steve Osborne adds some kind of elephantine groove to "Growing Up", which causes the song to resemble the frantic polyrhythms of Talking Heads circa "Remain In Light" rapidly sinking in quicksand. The gentler, reflective "Sky Blue" is pulled back from the soporific brink by some richly textured, wordless backing vocals from The Blind Boys Of Alabama, one of the album's few genuinely spinetingling moments. "No Way Out" features the lovely, resonant thrum of Danny Thompson's double bass, a stinging, Morricone-esque guitar line and shuffling percussion: the tragedy of "Up" is that, whilst Gabriel is brilliant at collecting such disparate elements together, he's not so clever at providing something interesting to do when they're all in the same room. On some Peter Gabriel albums, "The Barry Williams Show"'s blatantly populist critique of a Jerry Springer figure would be marked down for its obvious sensationalism. Here its appearance is almost a relief, despite its second-rate "Sledgehammer" sludgy funk near-miss of a melody. "My Head Sounds Like That" is probably the album's finest moment, turning the mundane - "The oil is spitting in the saucepan/I squeeze the sponge and let the cat out" into a sequence of brilliantly lit images, with The Black Dyke Band crooning through their brass instruments in the distance, but even here the calm is shattered by a discordant, jarring interlude.

But these are early impressions. Just as it took weeks for me to realise that the formless shadows behind the droplets on the front cover were actually the artist's face, it wouldn't surprise me if, many listens on, "Up" revealed itself to be as enjoyable as it is cultured and complex. At the moment, however, it's a gruelling, unfriendly listen, possibly the most 'progressive' album Gabriel's been involved with since leaving Genesis, but totally unrelieved by his former band's olde English charm and staggering melodic gifts.