Since this album took 10 years to make, I feel almost like I should listen to this for 10 years before passing judgement. Well it's been more like one year since I got it, but it still gets better with every listen. He brings together all his influences, talent and energy, and fuses them into his most personal album, with some rich, complex and perfectionist arrangements. There's far less concern for radio-friendliness here than "So" and "Us", but it's by no means difficult.
"Darkness" is a powerful beginning to the album, based around some heavy psychotherapy lyrics. I love the light and dark effect he creates here. The neurotic verses are sung with distorted vocals and scrungy guitars. This contrasts brilliantly with the chorus, where we first hear Gabriel's natural voice, accompanied by soft piano: "I have my fears, they do not have me". "Growing Up" is a far better single than either "Burn You Up, Burn You Down" or "Barry Williams". Packed full of tunes, there's even a clever bit where he sings two tunes at once. After the mellow, gospely "Sky Blue", two songs "No Way Out" and "I Grieve" showcase Gabriel's throaty but powerful voice with some soaring choruses.
"Barry Williams Show" seems like a token single in the slot of "Steam" or "Sledgehammer" but it's a disappointment. When the album finally came out it had become old-hat to mock Jerry Springer style talkshows, but maybe it's become cool again now the Springer opera is showing in the West End... Gabriel's song has that "it has to sound funky, but can't think of a tune" feel about it, and the lyrics are also lacking in imagination. The intimate piano ballad "The Drop" forms a spooky postlude, with some disturbing imagery of people jumping out of a plane. Gabriel seems to be a fan of the Blue Nile, as he gave Paul Buchanan a guest slot on his "Ovo" show. I wouldn't be surprised if he had been thinking of their song "Family Life" when writing this.
A mellow brass arrangement fills out the floating tune of "My Head Sounds Like That" well, while "More than This" also has a relaxed and upbeat tune. "Signal To Noise" fills the climactic finale slot well, although maybe its tunes are not robust enough to cope under such a pudgy arrangement. The orchestration reminds me of David Arnold's arrangement on Björk's "Play Dead". The highlight here is an astonishing vocal performance from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
In all it's perhaps his best solo album. It'll appeal to the muso much more than the middle of the road radio pop-dominated "Us" and "So". It's not actually less commercial because of the lack of catchy tunes, indeed the melodies here are equally strong as those on "Us". It's more the dark and complex arrangements, peppered with electronics, and the (mostly) serious and introspective lyrics that make it less immediate, but eventually more rewarding.
March 28, 2004