Six years between studio albums is an eternity in pop music. This is especially true for fans of Peter Gabriel, the 42-year-old British rock singer, composer, producer and avid human-rights activist. Gabriel's last album, So, was progressive musically and lyrically; his latest, Us, is even more compelling.
Gabriel has hardly been idle since So was released. In 1988 he joined Sting and Tracy Chapman on an Amnesty International tour. Two years ago, he created the Real World record label to provide a vehicle for Third World musicians (some of whom appear on Us) and later composed the score for Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ. With the Reebok Foundation, he supplies video cameras to human rights groups in the hope that they will record violations.
Despite Gabriel's heightened social awareness, his new album is not devoted to political, economical and social matters, but mainly to the breakups of his marraige and postmarraige romance. With his band and guest musicians from such countries as Senegal, Turkey and Armenia creating a dense sonic atmosphere and incorporating Western and non-Western rhythms, he turns inward, examining through cerebral lyrics his behavior in relationships.
In the first released single, Digging in the Dirt, with its power guitar riffs, Gabriel explores his "dark" side, as he menacingly barks orders to a lover in the chorus. Moments after his anger subsides, he exposes his vunerability, pleading, "Stay with me, I need support." Perhaps nowhere else does he so eagerly long for an end to pain and for the remedy of a lasting relationship than on Love to be Loved and Washing of the Water. In the former, Gabriel confesses his fears of loneliness over a moody, mid-tempo track, singing, "When my self-esteem is sinking, I like to be liked / In this emptiness and fear, I want to be wanted / 'Cause I love to be loved." Washing of the Water, with its slow piano-and-drum accompaniment, sounds hymnal. "River, oh river running deep," Gabriel implores, "Bring me something to take this pain away."
The ethereal ballad Blood of Eden (with Sinead O'Connor singing backup) uses biblical references to emphasize Gabriel's hunger for spiritual and sexual union. The up-tempo Steam, featuring a funky, pumping bass line and brass blasts, teems with sexual energy, as Gabriel lusts for a woman who is "turning up the heat."
Apart from the playful Kiss that Frog, based on the Prince Charming fairy tale, Us offers little in the way of light fare. Recent Gabriel converts who expect another slew of hits to equal those heard on So will be dissapointed, but Gabriel's older fans, accustomed to his challenging lyrics and textured musical landscapes, will find that Us is for them.