There's no doubt that expectations for Peter Gabriel's new album Up were running a little high. After all, 1992's Us had delivered such memorable and radio-friendly fare as "Steam" and "Digging in the Dirt," and the fire that had originally fueled his landmark 1986 album So showed no signs of going out any time soon. Still, as the years went by, fans began to get that anxious-dog look on their faces: Where did he go? Is he coming back?
Well, 10 years later, Peter Gabriel is back with a new album (Up) and quite frankly, it's good to hear his voice. Of course, it's not as if he disappeared completely from view. In the past decade, he's founded world music festival WOMAD, helped create the narrative and visual concept for London's Millennium Dome show and furthered the careers of new artists on his Real World label. He's also written the scores for Red Planet, City of Angels and most notably, the soundtrack for Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ (which he released under the title The Passion).
In fact, it's not hyperbole to say that his sense of the cinematic informs much of Up. It unfolds in somewhat narrative form, moving back and forth between the adjacent territories of birth and youth and death and grief. The strengths of his previous work -- his clever lyricism and his sonic ingenuity -- are just as present here. "Growing Up" sounds like vintage Peter Gabriel in theme and delivery, and certain lines in "The Barry Williams Show" (named for a fictitious TV show host, and not, as far as we know, Greg on The Brady Bunch) lodge disturbingly in the brain for days. "I Grieve" is as perfect as they come, with a slow dirge dissolving into the chaos of life-goes-on street rhythms.
In sum, however, Up is not flawless. Some of it feels done before, and there is nothing here that is likely to become a single. Rolling Stone even ripped the record, saying "Gabriel has never seemed more out of touch." Still, most other critics and fans have found much to appreciate about the album. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Blind Boys of Alabama and even producer Daniel Lanois on guitar all make appearances, and Gabriel has never been more beautifully melancholy. To those who've always responded to his work, this album is a significant and welcome addition to the canon.