Peter Gabriel

Real World Records, 2023


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Standard disclaimer: I remain part of the minority that prefers Peter Gabriel without Genesis and Genesis without Peter Gabriel. To these ears, early Genesis is overly eccentric, and all of Gabriel’s best work has come as a solo artist.


It’s impossible to talk about i/o without considering its decades-long gestation period. Gabriel’s last full studio album of original material was 2002’s Up; in the meantime, work on i/o proceeded in fits and starts in between and around a variety of side projects, collections, soundtrack appearances, covers albums and other distractions. Evidence suggests that Gabriel may also have developed a case of decision fatigue, ultimately opting to issue three notably different full-album mixes of the same set of 12 songs. (This review focuses on the so-called “Bright-Side Mix” by Mark “Spike” Stent.)

One of the cool things about being Peter Gabriel (and there admittedly are many) is that you can take 22 years to make an album while still retaining the same core band you’ve had in place for nearly twice that long. The So and Us band of Manu Katché (drums), Tony Levin (bass) and David Rhodes (guitar) returns yet again, with Gabriel, Oli Jacobs and Brian Eno providing the synths, plus a small horde of backing vocalists, horn and string players, and other contributors. The sound they make together is that same familiar one: spacious, vibrant, supple, unpredictable, at times otherworldly, and always, always precise.

Opener “Panopticom” is a super-sized anthem that inevitably harks back to prior album openers like “Red Rain” and “Come Talk To Me,” though it’s a touch gentler and airier than either. Even as you’re absorbing the consistency of Gabriel’s sound, though, the searching, philosophical lyrics and overall mellower vibe of the music suggest the passage of time and effects of age. This is a less manic, more introspective Peter Gabriel.

“The Court” is a fascinating concoction, a surreal consideration of justice and judgment that finds Gabriel nearly rapping in between pulsing, rhythmic orchestral flourishes and a soaring chorus. “Playing For Time” is almost a blues number, at least until he brings in strings and comes as close as he ever has to crooning; what may be surprising—or not surprising at all, depending on your perspective—is how well that works. Maybe it's the time of life that Gabriel has arrived at (he’s a spry and clever 74), but it feels like it suits him, perhaps especially given that it’s a song about coming to grips with the march of time and the inevitability of aging. After the croony section, the tempo picks up a bit and the strings grow more assertive and dramatic, to good effect. 

The title track “i/o” is the cornerstone of this album and an absolute stunner. The lyric, a meditation on human existence and interdependence, perhaps inevitably feels like a response to / antidote for COVID isolation, though it was likely conceived years before; it's about understanding that the world we inhabit is all one big natural system that we are merely cycling through. Opening with just rippling, rhythmic piano and gradually adding elements, at the chorus the song delivers a wonderful surge that really sweeps you up into this well-imagined, intelligent and moving piece of work.

“Four Kinds Of Horses” has a looming, almost haunted aspect, relying like many latter-day Gabriel songs—possibly too many—on a pulsing rhythm. It's an arresting device, used sparingly, but used too much, can make the songs feel a little samey unless/until they break out. Thankfully, Gabriel switches things up with the next couple of tracks; “Road To Joy” has an almost Talking Heads funk foundation to it, with the Soweto Gospel Choir adding vocal dimension on the choruses, while “So Much” is a hymn-like contemplation on aging and mortality (“This edition is limited / There’s only so much can be done”).

“Olive Tree” returns focus to the natural world and ecology and the systems of life, with another tidal surge leading into the chorus, where a horn section puts the cherry on top. The latter is funny to write because Phil Collins took so much grief from prog purists for putting horns on a Genesis song… but if Peter Gabriel does it? Oh, well, then it's just cool.  

“Love Can Heal” is a patented Gabriel contemplation, airy and atmospheric in that accustomed way, with Linnea Olsson’s cello periodically slicing through the haze of a song whose title tells its whole story lyrically. “This Is Home” follows with a warm and gentle bounce, a celebration of domestic bliss that manages to come off both somber and happy (“Home is where I need to be / I know, you are my home”).

“And Still” is a slow-paced yet gripping eulogy for and celebration of Gabriel’s mother that can feel rather sing-songy and ponderous at times unless you focus in on the lyrics, which are just beautiful, a pure and unadorned expression of familial love. Closer “Live And Let Live” is a pulsing, steadily brightening anthem with an insightful lyric about the futility of anger and the necessity of forgiveness (“When we forgive, we can move on / Release all the shackles one by one / We belong to the burden / Til it’s gone”). As the orchestra and Soweto Gospel Choir raise the song ever higher into the sky, it’s a fitting close to a superb album.

(Note: I haven’t spent much time thus far with the “Dark-Side Mix” by Tchad Blake, but my first impression is that it accents the drums, percussion and guitar at the expense of the keyboards and orchestral elements. Which is an interesting approach, but despite my normal guitar-o-centrism, so far I have a pretty strong preference for the Bright-Side Mix.)

Everything Gabriel ever produces will unfairly but inevitably be compared to the early peaks of his solo catalog, and i/o doesn’t quite reach those heights; it’s too studied and familiar for that. All the same, i/o is a remarkably strong late-period album, a heartfelt, piercingly intelligent examination of aging and our place in the world that’s also tuneful and celebratory. To which it feels only right to say: thank you for this gift.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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