In talking about Peter Gabriel's new album, Up, I was going to write that it has the first album cover on which his face doesn't actually appear since twenty years ago -- but then I looked at the cover again, and there he is, at an angle in the murky background. There but not there, with amorphous water drops spinning between him and us. (He may have been there on the Security cover in 1982 too -- it's hard to tell what any of that stuff is.)
The new album (his seventh full studio project, and first in a decade) has more in common with Security, which was the first record to turn me on to Gabriel's talents. He was making electronic instruments and processed drum loops sound organic (and creepy) long before Massive Attack or the Chemical Brothers were out of grade school, and on Up, as on several tracks from Security, he takes his time for full effect.
You don't always know it, but Tony Levin's growling, feline bass, David Rhodes's guitar-that-is-not-guitar, and Manu Katché's sophisticated drums are there, as they have been for years and years -- Levin, for one, has played on Gabriel's albums since the first one in 1976. Every song but the final one ("The Drop," a lonely piano ballad) is at least six minutes long. Most have several movements, starting and ending quietly, but rocking out, grooving funk, or simply spewing frightening sheets of noise in between. The opener, "Darkness" (nearly seven minutes start to finish), starts with subtle, throbbing globbets of sound. I turned up my speakers to hear better, then had my ears blown off by the weird, scary, metallic shriek and thunderstorm drums that come in soon after. The title is spot on.
Most of the album is less blatant than that, but it's far from a pop project. You won't understand it at all by paging through the first 15 or 30 seconds of each song. "Growing Up," for instance, has a propulsive rhythm, but you don't hear it until more than a minute in, after a mournful cello-backed intro. On my first listen, I found Up dull and slow, but subsequent tries have brought out all the strange and lovely stuff going on. Put on your headphones and turn down the lights, but not too far. You might get freaked out.
There's no "Sledgehammer" or "Solsbury Hill" hit here, nor even a "Shock the Monkey" or "Games Without Frontiers." The first single, "The Barry Williams Show," is most like "Big Time" from So, lyrically and musically, but it's far from the strongest piece on Up. I don't know what that is yet. But I'll be listening a lot to find it, because Up is starting to dig into my brain, which is an enjoyably disturbing image, like so many Peter Gabriel has conjured up over the years.