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Peter Gabriel Takes the Test of Time

Pop Music* The '80s superstar breaks a 10-year recording hiatus with 'Up,' making no apology for working until satisfied.

October 05, 2002|GREG KOT | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Where have you gone, Peter Gabriel? A founding member of Genesis who became a rock superstar in the '80s with hits such as "Biko," "Shock the Monkey" and "Sledgehammer," Gabriel last released a studio album of pop-oriented songs in what seems like a different world:

Bill Clinton was running for the presidency against the father of the current president, George W. Bush.

Fledgling Mouseketeer Britney Spears hadn't even filmed her first episode of "The New Mickey Mouse Club."

Guns N' Roses was the planet's biggest rock band.

But times have changed. Gabriel has been hunkered down in a studio on and off for the last decade, tinkering with songs and plotting his next move.

Last week, "Up" (Geffen), was finally released, a 10-song concept album about "death and birth and things that are above and beneath life," Gabriel says in an interview, "the stuff outside the main view of the windshield."

Would that be a literary conceit or something he says just to satisfy nosy journalists? Even Gabriel, who treads cautiously through interviews with a blend of monkish calm and an undertaker's dourness, has to laugh.

"It's really the sort of [stuff] I start coming up with when I start doing interviews," he says. "The theme of the album usually doesn't emerge until I talk to a few journalists, and one of them comes up with a good theory and I think, 'Yeah, that's it!' "

The advent of home-recording technology has given artists more freedom than ever to produce music at their own pace, rather than at a record company's. Without having to worry about mounting studio costs, musicians are free to explore myriad options at a pace that makes rockers of the past appear even more dizzyingly prolific than they actually were.

In the '60s and '70s major acts like the Beatles and Elton John were recording and releasing as many as three albums a year, but the pace has slowed dramatically in the last decade. Now big-name performers are expected to take their time between studio releases.

But the more deliberate pace demanded by these promotion schedules also promotes creative hand-wringing. Axl Rose has been working on "Chinese Democracy," the 11-years-in-the-making sequel to Guns N' Roses' "Use Your Illusion" albums, so long that he has become a punch line for rock-star excess.

Bruce Springsteen similarly has recorded and scrapped countless tracks and at least one finished album over the years; "The Rising" is his first studio album since 1995 and only his fifth in 17 years. Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor took five years to create "The Fragile," the follow-up to his 1994 breakthrough "The Downward Spiral," and he found himself struggling to reclaim his audience.

Gabriel has also been working at an increasingly deliberate basis. His first four solo albums came out in five years, but his next three required 20, with progressively diminishing artistic results. It's not that he's been dithering. His Real World Studios, near Bath, England, has become a workshop, sanctuary and meeting place for musicians from around the world. While developing the songs for "Up," Gabriel completed two other projects: "OVO," the multiethnic score for the Millennium Dome Show, and "Long Walk Home," the soundtrack for the Australian movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence."

"There were 130 songs in various stages of completion the last 10 years," Gabriel says. "I guess I just enjoy the business of making music better than selling it. I didn't have a producer on board whipping me into shape, and so deadlines become things you pass through on the way to finishing."

Gabriel brushes aside the notion that isolation breeds a lack of outside input that hampers his ability to make decisions quickly.

"Real World isn't an isolated lighthouse, it's a bit more like a train station with people coming from all over the world, so there is always a lot of stuff to inspire me, and a few musicians to try and kidnap."

A few of them appear on "Up," including the late Pakistani sacred singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama. They bring a richness to the recording that is undeniable. But Gabriel's songwriting lacks the sense of surprise and subversiveness that marks his finest work.

If Gabriel feels daunted by that legacy, he doesn't let on.

"Music has never been a problem for me," he says. "If I had to produce a song a day, as the songwriters were required to do in the old days of the Brill Building [a New York City office building filled through the early 1960s with songwriters and music publishers], I think I could do that. The problem comes when I try to strap some words on top. And then to get something that I am satisfied with, or even half-satisfied with, will take a week or two weeks. I have to go away. I can't do it at home or in the studio, because I'm a master of distractions. I could make a career out of distractions, and I wouldn't get anything done."

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