Review of Shaking the Tree

Melody Maker - November 24, 1990
By Jon Wilde

Gabriel has never really belonged in the Bowie/Eno/Cale/Byrne/Fripp school of arty-farty rockers. He was more like the elder spiritual cousin of clueless wonders like Sting, Midge Ure and Geldof who have always attempted to camouflage their astonishing lack of talent with the worst kind of genial earnestness.

By the mid-Eighties, Gabriel had achieved some kind of hip status among rock critics too young to remember or keen to overlook his appalling excesses with Genesis. Truly though, Gabriel has always been, and always will be, mid-Seventies Man. From stage experiments with helium to idiot masks, from Beckett-esque despair to gibbering social conscience, he's been a bad actor in search of a good part. The ultimate Prog Rocker.

Over the years, he has toyed with persona like a pubescent lad who's discovered his genitals but hasn't yet worked out what to do with them. Cartoon comic jester. Barmy English minstrel. Chronic depressive. Paranoid schizo. Funky AOR rocker. Liberally concerned angst-merchant. Cross-culture dilettante. None of them convincing in the slightest. You might argue that the capricious solo course Gabriel has followed over the last 13 years is proof enough of his tormented genius, but you'd be very much mistaken. If anything, his erratic development is proof enough that Gabriel has never really know what he's been playing with.

There's precious little to celebrate on this 16-track retrospective which launches with his only classic song, "Solsbury Hill". That 1977 hit was the only time he revealed a gift for the sublime hookline. It was the only time that Gabriel played like he had something to prove. Just about everything since has amounted to throwing a handful of loose ideas around in the vain hope that they will somehow cohere.

Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, "Shaking the Tree" always threatens to pull itself together but it never quite happens. His chunky AOR outings ("I Don't Remember" and "Sledgehammer") are followed by a series of gormless ballads, suspended in a kind of sluggish atmospheric limbo. The title track (co-written with the highly tedious Youssou N'Dour) and "Here Comes the Flood" have both been overhauled, the former with a new vocal, but they still sound determinedly unrealised.

'Red Rain", "Games Without Frontiers" and "Shock the Monkey" form an idiosyncratic triumvirate and never fail to grate on the nerves. Gabriel once remarked/joked that "Games" was written with "It's a Knockout" presenter, Stuart Hall, in mind. Interesting to note that the insufferably zany Mr Hall has recently been charged with stealing a packet of sausages and a jar of coffee from a supermarket in Wilmslow, Cheshire. Gabriel, ever the shameless opportunist, will be adding a new verse to "Biko" as we speak.

Gabriel once remarked, "There's a great similarity between what I do and blues music", which goes to show how oblivious he is to his own limits. There's no catharsis here. There's no emotional confrontation. Those fools don't buy his records to be moved. They invest in slick technological precision and stylistic preening. Beyond that, there's just bluff and humbug with a bit of protest thrown in for good measure. Peter Gabriel is Phil Collins' old mucker and there's no getting away from that. Once a Prog Rocker, always a Prog Rocker.

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