Blue Snaggletooth Reviews:

Peter Gabriel - i/o


I can't pretend that I have any personal experience of the situation, but it's easy to imagine the stress and anxiety one might feel when publicly presenting a creation that took you over twenty years to create. His long public life of live performances notwithstanding, Peter Gabriel must have been at least a little nervous when releasing his album i/o. Maybe that's why he made such a chore of the process, taking almost a year dribbling out single tracks, from January 2023 until the full album release in December of that year. It may also be why he felt it necessary to release a double album, with two mixes of each of the twelve songs.

So, was it worth the wait? Have we fans been rewarded sufficiently for the twenty-one dry years between 2002's Up and Peter's next studio release? Well, it's probably worth it to remember that Peter wasn't sitting and twiddling his thumbs during that whole time. He was touring, for one thing: he took several years performing tracks from Up, and I was at a couple of those performances. I enjoyed them immensely, as I did the album. I don't think I was immediately taken with Up, but it has certainly grown on me and I would rate it up there with his best material. It's a dark, grim album, with pounding, drama-filled, and sometimes surprisingly angry music. Peter has a gift for taking himself seriously and convincing his listeners to do the same; he's thoughtful, he's emotional but not melodramatic. You feel that what he sings is true and comes from a very real and genuine place. If you're reading this, you'll have gotten the idea by now that I like Genesis quite a bit, and to varying degrees have followed the solo careers of all its members. Of all of them, past and more present, Peter is probably my favorite. His music soars, sticks with you, and has never felt unimportant or breezy. It means something, it is art.

Sure, he has stumbled in the past. Some might complain of the disjointedness of his freshman effort (Pete, ever the iconoclast, refused to name his first four albums, so we can use the nicknames born of their album covers and call it "Car"), but I love its quirkiness and have even come to appreciate the unwieldy, less successful tracks on it, like "Down the Dolce Vita." I'd call his weakest album his second, "Scratch." It fumbles for cleverness like a man throwing darts blindfolded, failing on confusingly goofy, arcane songs like "Animal Magic" and "A Wonderful Day in a One-Way World," while finding nirvana on powerful cuts like "D.I.Y." and "On the Air." Peter really hit his stride for me in his next two albums, "Melt" and "Security," which I consider his best. He began exploring disturbing and grittily interesting things like assassins, stalkers, outsiders: the lost, the lonely, the underdogs. His songs use unusual sound effects and meditative, pulsing beats, but show a unified mind and a focused purpose.

At this point, having released four albums in a period of a mere five years, Pete's creative process suddenly started to become sluggish. His interests widened, for one thing. Just at the same time as "Security" came out, he was dealing with the fallout from his first WOMAD festival, being forced to reunite with his former bandmates to make up financial losses. It took another four years to release the surprising and amazingly successful So, and another six for 1992's Us, and then the largest gap yet, ten years, for Up (even though he only changed one letter in his title!). I mean really: who takes ten years to make an album? And the progression from the multi-platinum So, with its happy hits "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time," to the more introspective and serious Us, was continued even further with Up, which sold progressively fewer copies and produced very little in the way of hits.

In several ways, i/o is a surprising departure from the grimness of Up, and a surprising and somewhat disappointing departure from this career-long estimable unaffectedness. It is also surprisingly effervescent and vibrant, very much lacking the belabored, overworked sound one might expect from a twenty-years long project. Many of the songs have the simple production and short runtime of pop music. This is the more surprising given some of the other projects Peter worked on during his long studio interlude: for instance, his Scratch My Back album, in which he took songs from many different artists and created a series of funereal, dragging, and (in his own words) "whiny white man" covers. (For the record, I much preferred the "responses" album, And I'll Scratch Yours, where many of the artists he'd covered produced much more interesting covers of his own songs.) Listening to this and his 2012 Live Blood album, or seeing him on tour with Sting or to celebrate the anniversary of his So album, once could be forgiven for expecting a much different album than what i/o actually is.

My honest answer to the question, was it worth the wait, would have to be "No." Nothing could be worth that long a wait; but as might have become clear from the above, this isn't really a fair question. Peter wasn't twiddling his thumbs for twenty-one years, and he wasn't in an extended dry spell: he was still making music, some of it very enjoyable. The gap between Up and this album is a bit of an illusion. Apparently Peter had over a hundred songs in various stages of creation over this time. I could wish he'd seen fit to release some of them, but an artist doesn't actually owe anything to his public, strange as that idea may seem.

Still, it's possible that my initial perceptions of these songs and this album were more than a little colored by the long (perceived) gap. I also found Peter's release schedule irritating and, in the end, rather pointless. I'm much younger than Peter and came to his music through a somewhat unusual path, being a child of the 80s rather than the 70s; but I am still dinosaur enough to prefer albums to single, streaming tracks. When I went to see Peter during his tour for the album in the fall of 2023, I found it frustratingly difficult to listen to the songs that had been released, using streaming methods which felt cumbersome and unfamiliar to me. Am I just a crotchety middle-aged man? Maybe. But this is my review, so I can complain all I want.

Thankfully I was able to put a lot of that frustration to the side when the full album was finally released and living on my iPod, and I was able to listen to it the way I feel I was meant to listen to it. By that time, having heard many of the songs at least once, my listening experience was comfortable, with less of the challenging breaking-in period one usually has with a spanking-new album, and I was able to enjoy all of the songs much more. So it has grown on me. But to date, it does not hold the place that Up has in my personal PG rankings, and does not even approach efforts like "Melt" and "Security."

Some of the highlights for me: "Four Kinds of Horses" and "Love Can Heal," which admittedly are probably the two tracks that sound the most like those from Up. Both are very serious songs, lacking the frivolity I was mentioning earlier. This is the serious Pete that you are driven to take seriously. Peter's vocals on "Love Can Heal" go places I haven't heard him go before, beautiful and sublime. I also particularly love the rhythm of "The Court," which highlights a theme on the album of great drum beats (a drummer first, Pete has always loved his beats). I do find its repetitive chorus, often resorted to, somewhat lacking. "Olive Tree" is also a great song, which travels from an opening meditative portion which I like very much (again with very cool drums) to an upbeat, almost saccharinely-positive section which I was not as crazy about and seemed reminiscent more of Phil Collins' lesser stuff.

I made several other musical connections on these songs which left a sour taste. "Playing for Time," another repetitive chorus song, is nice enough, but it took me to the mawkish world of Randy Newman's Toy Story soundtrack (I don't find it a coincidence that Newman was one of the artists he chose to cover for his "Scratchies"). "Road to Joy" is a fun song with a driving rhythm and a naughty playfulness, and ends with a splash sound effect that puts a smile on my face; but its main melody just sounds far too reminiscent of, well, Peter Gabriel: specifically 1992's "Kiss that Frog." That's a great song, but you can't just go and write it again (anyone remember Pete Townshend's "Same Old Song"?). "And Still," a very touching and heartfelt song about Peter's mother, is all of those things, until it gets to a bridge portion near the end with some eerie, deep-voiced whispering reminiscent of the PG oldie "Intruder." Now I loved "Intruder," but it was a song about a stalker. Creepy whispering strikes completely the wrong tone in a song about how you love your mother.

My least favorite track on the album, "Live and Let Live," sounds less bad to me now than when I heard it live. But I still find its sunshine message somehow tacky and less genuine than the Pete I'm used to. This kind of lightweight positivity, a sort of intentional turning away from seriousness, is a streak running through the album that I found a turn-off. On the other side of the spectrum, I found myself repelled by the overly cerebral obscurity found in the title of the opening track, "Panopticom," which I have googled several times to convince myself I'm not misspelling. There is a real thing called a panopticon, which is either a tower in the center of a prison or a holistic system of prison management; but apparently this isn't what Pete is talking about. Instead, he imagines some large ball that holds all the information in the world. The confusing word and concept leaves me bemused and ambivalent, and impairs my enjoyment of what is otherwise an okay song.

In the vein of irritating methodology, I have to state for the record that I don't really see the point of the Bright-Side and Dark-Side mixes. I suspect this was Peter feeling obliged to find some way to give us more than 12 songs after 21 years. It was also part of his overly elaborate release scheme and lunar-based timing, which for me was pretentious and annoying. I have no problem with artists creating different mixes of their songs, but I'd prefer they be more obviously different. I suppose if I took the time to listen to the Bright-Side immediately followed by the Dark-Side, I could actually discern differences in these mixes. Now, though, all I get is a general sense that the Dark-Sides come off grimmer and sadder sounding. In the end I wish he'd just picked his favorite mix for each and given us the best versions of his dozen tracks.

There is a lot of thoughtfulness in this record, for all my complaints of hearing the opposite. The title track contemplates the global consciousness and the enjoyment of life's interconnectedness. It is catchy and pleasant. "So Much," the only track on the album I hadn't heard live, seems to contemplate mortality and old age with real feeling and pathos. "This Is Home" is a perfectly good little love song. I have been listening to the album many times in preparation for writing this review, and enjoying it. It has many moments of brilliance and undeniable "Gabrielesque" power still there, carrying it along. The production is slick and not overworked, clear and bright. But I still have this sense of something missing, some integral soul of Peter that works his magic, only occasionally peeking out from among the notes.

So yes, for me this album was a bit of a disappointment, but that certainly doesn't mean I want Peter to go hole up in his Real World cave for another couple of decades, brooding. I want more music! If, as Wikipedia states, he had a hundred-plus songs in stages of production even when he was making Up, I'd like to hear a few more of those (though I know I'm not owed them). Anything Peter does, I want to hear, if only to give me something else to complain about. I hope he sees fit to keep creating, and showing his creations. As he says in "Four Kinds of Horses:" "Come all the nights, oh, come all the days."

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