Roll over Sigmund Freud. Therapy has come to even the rarefied sector of rock songwriters. Lately, Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose have told reporters about their pschotherapy, and now Peter Gabriel has come up with a song about the process: 'Digging In The Dirt'. "Find the places I got hurt," he sings in his weary voice. "Open up the places I got hurt." It's the first single from "Us", and a signal of Gabriel's changed intentions. This time, it's personal.
At first, the album sounds like Gabriel hasn't budged much since he released "So" in 1986. One new song, 'Steam,' returns to the 1960's soul riffs and Smokey Robinson style wordplay of 'Sledgehammer,' from "So"; 'Come Talk To Me' revives the booming drumbeats and grandiosity of older songs like 'Biko' and 'San Jacinto,' although it also tosses in bagpipes, Senegalese drums, Russian choral singing and duduk, a Balkan flute. The album's arrangements use musicians from India, Kenya, Brazil and elsewhere, but the melodies come from Gabriel's English roots: hymns, Celtic folk music, pop songs and 1970's progressive rock.
From its title onward, "Us" makes clear that Gabriel's new songs are about connections, not solitude; shared bliss, not private visions. Since 1986, Gabriel has divorced his wife and had another romance end. "Us" is not a chronicle of the breakups, but a meditation on love and loss. Of all pop forms, love songs may be the most widespread and the most treacherous. Cliches, many of them true, are everywhere; pop psychology adds a layer of pschobabble. Speed-metal and collegiate rock in the 1980's, like 1970's progressive rock and punk-rock, steered clear of love songs. But the topic couldn't be repressed, returning on albums like "Us" and R.E.M.'s "Out of Time."
Love is a lost paradise on "Us." In the ballad 'Blood of Eden,' Gabriel sings about how "the distance grows between you and me" while remembering "the union of the woman and the man." In 'Secret World,' another couple drifts apart, wondering "What was it we were thinking of." The melody is a march, buffeted by cross-currents of cello, Sengalese drums and echoing U2-like guitars. Gabriel has a sense of humour; in 'Kiss That Frog,' organ and harmonica hoot while the amphibian narrator picks up Marvin Gaye's "come on, come on" mantra from 'Sexual Healing.' But most of "Us" is somber, almost penitential. In 'Washing Of The Water,' a hymn-like song with a horn arrangement recalling the Band, the singer longs for a baptismal river to carry him away, so he won't have to either let go of a lover or "face what he denied."
With the wrong backdrop, the songs seem sentimental or self-pitying. But Gabriel has turned his music inward. When he left Genesis in 1975, he started using silence and space instead of progressive rock's bogus pomp. Yet he never lost his taste for dramatic crescendos and stately tempos, fit for arenas. Most of "Us" resists the crisp blueprinting of Gabriel's previous albums. The album grows out of 'Mercy Street' on "So," with its Brazilian percussion and echoing keyboards, and out of the instrumentals Gabriel concocted in 1989 for "Passion" (the soundtrack music from "The Last Temptation of Christ"). On "Us," sounds of traditional instruments and high technology drift around Gabriel's careworn, grizzled voice, a haze of cross-purposes rather than a frame or a pedestal.
Gabriel has been involved with international music, as a founder of the annual World of Music and Dance festivals and the head of Real World, a studio and a recording company devoted to world music. In description, "Us" might seem colonialist; elements like choral vocals from Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble or Sengalese drumming from Doudou N'Diaye Rose are submerged in Anglo-American-style rock anthems. But in effect, Gabriel samples textures rather than structures; he's collaborating, not pretending to have mastered someone else's traditions. And the results can be enthralling. The lyrics of "Love To Be Loved," in which the singer slowly breaks through his "fear of letting go," verge on pschobabble, but the arrangement's trickling keyboards, rippling guitars and pattering hand drums, all muted, make Gabriel's voice seem unmoored, desolate. And in 'Only Us,' slowed-down funk guitar and syncopated bass pull against Gabriel's singing while Indian violin and Turkish ney (flute) tease him with wisps and squiggles. "I'm finding my way home from the great escape," Gabriel sings. "The further I go, oh, the less I know." There's no reassurance in Gabriel's love songs, no faith that the split can be repaired. "Friend or Foe, there's only us," the song concludes. Alone now rather than a loner, the singer faces not fantasies and visions, but the unending expanse of ordinary happiness.