- Artist: Peter Gabriel
- Title: Us
- Released: 1992
- Format: CD/Digital Download
- Genre: Alternative/Rock
- Beverage of Choice: Irish Breakfast Tea
Six years after the worldwide phenomenon that was So, Peter Gabriel released this absolute gem of a breakup album. Dealing with the emotional and spiritual pain of his divorce and other strained relationships, the record mirrors the sonic layering and rhythms of So but, in my option, surpasses the impact of that offering through exquisite song-writing and craftsmanship in the studio. In addition to Gabriel’s typically nuanced and percussion-driven sound, the choice of collaborators on the album is inspired: Sinéad O’Connor takes the role that Kate Bush played on “Don’t Give Up” (one of my favorite songs from Gabriel) and delivers a heartfelt and affecting performance on “Blood of Eden” as well as “Come Talk to Me“, the opening track. The plaintive poetry of the latter song never fails to provoke an emotional response in me that hovers between sadness and hope :
The track has a nuanced sonic landscape, utilizing a variety of instrumentation (synth, synth bass, bagpipes, drone, guitar, triangle and amazing percussion by Manu Katché). Another welcome collaborator is Daniel Lanois lending his amazing talent to various tracks and instruments (dobro, shaker, horns) on the album.
Long-time friend and colleague Brian Eno adds his inimitable keyboard skills to “Love to be Loved“, one of Gabriel’s most emotionally transparent and appealing songs. After the gloss and mainstream acceptance of So, it must have been taking a major risk for Gabriel to expose himself in this way; the subdued atmospherics and vocal delivery stir the heart and mind in ways that few pop songs could ever aspire to. In my opinion this track deserves to be an enduring reminder of Gabriel’s creativity and musicianship.
“Blood of Eden” explores the inner world of relationships (especially marriage) with an amazing vocal performance and a similar song structure to “Don’t Give Up”. Gabriel uses Biblical imagery and themes fairly often in his songwriting and this particular example is powerful and affecting.
“Steam” is somewhat of an anomaly on this album with a strong resemblance (pretty much a rewrite) to “Sledgehammer”, the huge hit from So that launched Gabriel from a boutique fringe audience into the mainstream. Not a bad song, just somewhat out of place on this otherwise delicate and ephemeral track list. “Only Us” returns to the exotic and surreal soundscape that Gabriel excels at creating – Tony Levin providing a great lead bass performance and with Ayub Ogada on backup vocals, with additional musical punctuation from ney flute and violin.
Now we get to my favorite track on the album and possibly my favorite Gabriel track of all time – “Washing of the Water“. Measured and stately drums with piano lead and horns arrangement. Gabriel’s vocals are raw, infiltered and direct-to-the heart amazing. Listen to the lift on the bridge, his voice soaring and cracking with emotion, powerful and yet delicate; if I could sing at all I’d choose to sing like this.
“Digging in the Dirt” is up-tempo to match the somewhat aggressive lyrics; almost like a disagreement that turns into a fight between a married couple. Gabriel was clearly working out some the frustrations, disappointments and resentments from his failed marriage on this album – sad for him but great for us as music lovers as he turned his emotions into creativity and gifted us this great music. “Fourteen Black Paintings” is another great collaborative effort with John Paul Jones (ex-Led Zep) playing bass, keyboards and surdo, Babacar Faye on djembe, Levon Minassian on duduk and Daniel Lanois on dobro. This musical approach (percussion-driven with deep and wide soundscape layered over) has been Gabriel’s strength and recognizable trademark for a long time now and it’s what I’ve learned to appreciate most about his talent.
“Kiss that Frog” could have been left off this album and nobody would have missed it (well, maybe Gabriel might); it’s the weakest offering on the album, gimmicky at best – skip it if you like. “Secret World” restores the mood and rescues the end of the album with another ode to relationships wrapped up in a musical blanket incorporating synth strings, Mexican flute and cello and Manu Katche’s stellar drumming.
Warning: this album is not as immediately accessible as So and it takes time and multiple listenings to extract all of the juicy goodness from Us. If you do invest he time though, I guarantee you a rich return from the effort and you’ll be able to amaze your friends when you next identify a duduk been played on a song!