Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Peter Gabriel Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Peter Gabriel (1977, Atco)

A –

Gabriel’s first solo album (produced by Bob Ezrin, best known for his work with Kiss) is a strong and wildly entertaining one, both retaining some of his eccentricities as the former frontman and lyricist for Genesis and yet boasting some of the strongest melodies and hooks he’s written yet, resulting in an album that’s distinctly the work of Peter Gabriel yet a bit more commercial and approachable than most of his prior, more avant-garde work with Genesis, even if the opening cut ( “Moribund the Burgermeister”) is still pretty strange.  The most famous cut here is the autobiographical radio classic “Solsbury Hill,” still a knockout track to this day, though there are many other fine tunes here as well, namely the hard-rocking “Modern Love,” “Slowburn,” and the ballads “Humdrum” and “Here Comes the Flood.” Even a cut like the very unusual, vaudeville-flavored “Excuse Me,” which opens with – no joke – a barbershop quartet, still manages to work thanks to the strength of the melody.  

Peter Gabriel (1978, Atlantic)

B +

Just a step below its predecessor, Gabriel’s second solo outing (produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp) does noticeably drop in quality a little bit in its back half, but its best moments are still very good. It’s got a really dynamite 1-2 opening punch in the rockers “On the Air” and “D.I.Y.,” while the ballad “Mother of Violence,” the lite slinky reggae of “A Wonderful Day in a One-Way World,” and the epic “White Shadow” round out what is truly a virtually flawless first side. It gets a little spotty after that, but the second side is redeemed by “Animal Magic,” “Perspective,” and “Home Sweet Home.” It’s definitely not Gabriel’s most commercial album – “D.I.Y.” is the closestthing here to an obvious single, but even that one isn’t half as immediate as “Solsbury Hill” from the debut – but it still has its occasional hooks, and Fripp’s production makes it a particularly intriguing listen.

Peter Gabriel (1980, Mercury)

A

Gabriel’s strongest solo outing yet, this isn’t exactly a happy album – it’s a very serious, arty, and often depressing disc – but it’s ironically got a fair number of surprisingly catchy melodies, too, and the batch of songs holds together as an album piece better than any set of songs Gabriel has delivered to this point. The album is also particularly notable for its innovative drum experiments, from Gabriel’s instructions to drummers Phil Collins and Jerry Marotta to refrain from using cymbals to the distinct cavernous sound (the result of employing heavily gated reverb) on cuts like “Intruder” that Collins would continue to use on his own records for many years to come.  [Aside from Collins, the special guests here also include Dave Gregory from XTC and Paul Weller of The Jam and Style Council.] The highlight of the disc (produced by a young Steve Lillywhite, later the producer for such huge acts as U2 and Dave Matthews Band) is easily the endlessly creative single “Games Without Frontiers” (which makes fabulous use of Kate Bush on its backing vocals), though there are many other cuts not to be missed, including “No Self-Control,” the protest song “Biko,” “Intruder,” “Family Snapshot,” and the tense art-rock of “I Don’t Remember.” 

Security (1982, Geffen)

B –

This album tends to have a great reputation among critics, and it is true that its rhythmic experiments and playful textures make the album a very fascinating listening experience sonically, but there also isn’t a heck of a lot of memorable melody underpinning most of these compositions, either, so while the album sounds amazing, actually remembering how these songs go is a little trickier here than was the case with any of the preceding albums. The Top 40 hit “Shock the Monkey” is an exception and stands out quite a bit for that reason. Of the remaining cuts, “I Have the Touch” and “The Rhythm of the Heat” stand out the most and are worth a listen. Just be prepared going into this album not to expect much in the way of hooks, and you’ll be more intrigued than disappointed.

So (1986, Geffen)

A +

Arguably his finest solo outing, Gabriel does an amazing job here of welding his more experimental and artistic tendencies to commercial song structures, and this album consequently was a commercial blockbuster without smacking of sellout in the least. The songs may have sounded more distinctly like hits this time out, but they also still sounded undeniably like Peter Gabriel. Virtually every last song here is a highlight, be it the heavily soul-flavored, brass-laden stomp of the Number One hit “Sledgehammer” (one of the finest Number One hits of the decade), the world-music-flavored balladry of the iconic “In Your Eyes” (memorably preserved on film in Say Anything …), the paranoid, frenetic funk of the Top Ten single “Big Time,” the dramatic album opener “Red Rain” or the incredibly atmospheric and stirring Kate Bush duet “Don’t Give Up.”

Us (1992, Geffen)

B –

Six years after his last outing, Gabriel re-emerges with an album that can’t help but be disappointing.  Unlike So, there’s not a whole lot of really immediate hooks to help the songs to sink in right away, and the songs are also really, really long, only two of the ten tracks clocking in under five minutes.  But neither is it a bad album, and many of these songs – even if they could have stood to be edited a bit – are quite decent, especially “Come Talk to Me,” “Secret World,” “Digging in the Dirt,” and “Blood of Eden.” There’s only one cut here where Gabriel actually clearly sounds as if he hopes to repeat the success he had on the radio with his last album, and that’s on the dance cut “Steam,” which may not exactly reach the greatness of “Sledgehammer,” but is just as soulful and almost as catchy and similarly employs a brass section to charming effect. The single didn’t do nearly as well as “Sledgehammer,” but it still ranks as one of Gabriel’s better and more easily approachable singles.

Up (2002, Geffen)

B

A full ten years after his last proper album, Gabriel finally emerges from the wilderness with some new studio material, and it’s a slight bounce-back from the disappointing Us, even if it’s not all that much more commercial of an album, either. Actually, this is an even more self-consciously arty album than anything Gabriel’s made since Security. This album took some criticism upon its initial release, if only for the inclusion of “The Barry Williams Show,” which, yes, doesn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the album, but it’s also at least thankfully a much more catchy and commercial song than most of the other material here and provides fans who prefer So to the artier third Peter Gabriel album something mildly lighthearted to tap their feet to. The album gets off to a strong start with the excellent “Darkness” and “Growing Up,” and the album ends on a strong note as well with the sparse “The Drop.” In between are such excellent cuts as “Signal to Noise” and “More Than This,” which finds the best balance of any track on the album between the artistic and the commercial and may stand as the catchiest non-hit in Gabriel’s entire solo catalog.  

Hit (2003, Geffen)

A –

It’s certainly not as perfect in execution as it could have been. At two full discs, it’s a little too long for more casual fans, nothing from his second album is included (“D.I.Y.” does appear on the U.K. edition but was strangely left off American pressings) and the sequencing doesn’t really make sense (it’s divided into a “Hit” disc and a “Miss” disc, but “In Your Eyes” inexplicably is included on the latter disc, while several non-charting singles are included on the former). Still, even if it’s not on the first disc, “In Your Eyes” is still at least present (which it was not on Gabriel’s only prior hits package, 1992’s Shaking the Tree), and there aren’t any real omissions of note besides “D.I.Y.” Naturally, most listeners are likely to listen to the “Hit” half more often, though the “Miss” disc does contain some overlooked gems, like “I Don’t Remember” and “Family Snapshot.”  There’s also one new studio cut here, the excellent and funky “Burn You Up, Burn You Down,” a collaboration with Karl Wallinger from the band World Party and a fun throwback to the lighthearted, arty pop-soul of “Sledgehammer.”

Scratch My Back (2010, Real World)

C +  

Cooler in concept than execution, Scratch My Back is the first half of an experimental two-disc covers project in which Gabriel selects songs by twelve different artists to cover, and those artists, in turn, each cover a Gabriel song for the follow-up disc ... and I’ll Scratch Yours. (This would not end up working exactly as planned, unfortunately, as several artists pulled out of the project after Gabriel completed his half of the project, so the two discs don’t completely mirror each other.) What keeps this disc from being as entertaining as it should be is that Gabriel makes little effort to make this sound anything like a regular Peter Gabriel album – there are no ventures into art-rock or world-beat, and in fact, there are no guitars, synthesizers, or drums here at all – the only accompaniment on any of these tracks consists of either a piano and/or an orchestra. It still sounds good, mind you, but it also gets incredibly monotonous and depressing after a while, and it would have been infinitely more intriguing to hear how the Peter Gabriel we know from the radio would have re-arranged these songs. Consequently, this isn’t nearly as commercial a covers album as it should have been. Some of the cuts are still good – the sparse renditions of Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind,” the Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love,” and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” are especially appealing – but it’s hard not to wish Gabriel had taken a bit more orthodox of an approach.

New Blood (2011, Real World)

C

Gabriel’s latest studio project unfortunately contains only new original song, the fine “A Quiet Moment.” (Prolific, the man is certainly not.) New Blood is otherwise comprised of songs Gabriel has chosen from his own back catalog to re-record in the same sparse, piano-and-orchestra style he used to record all his covers on Scratch My Back. The result is just as artful and intriguing as that particular album, but it also ultimately has all the same downfalls as that album: it’s simply just too monotonous and downbeat to really hold your interest over its entire running time, and it’s missing all the normal sonic and musical trademarks of your standard, appealing Peter Gabriel art-pop album.  It’s a relatively amusing one-off listen, but it’s much more likely you’ll still reach for the original versions of these songs in the future in lieu of these orchestral re-workings.