Six years into the process of creating his eighth studio album, Peter Gabriel decided to name the record Up. Down may have been a more appropriate title.
Only the record's single, "The Barry Williams Show," about the preposterous nature of reality shows, is at all upbeat (see "Peter Gabriel Pens Very Brady Single On Death-Inspired Up"). The rest of the disc is full of darkly beautiful songs with listless, drifting melodies that range from melancholy to despairing.
The beats surface slowly, as if emerging from the depths of the sea, thumping almost imperceptibly at first and then crashing like surf. Hints of 1992's Us are present, but the music is even more adventurous, combining electronic clamor with delicate synth atmospheres, melding somber strings with spare, cracker-thin piano lines.
"I think sometimes by going down, you create the possibility of being up," Gabriel said, explaining the disc's dark tone. "In other words [there's a] catharsis. Sometimes by allowing stuff to come out, you get to a real positive place."
Even in his early days with Genesis, Gabriel addressed misery and mortality between grandiose, dramatic gestures. "Death was never taboo to me," the singer explained. "Growing up on a farm where you see animals born and dying all the time, it seems to have a place in life rather than be one of the great unmentionables."
From the beginning of Up to the end, Gabriel explores the darker realities of life, first through the eyes of a child, and later from the perspective of an adult overcome with grief. As death-obsessed as he may seem, he frequently finds something positive within morbid topics. In the evocative "I Grieve," he sings, "I grieve for you and you leave me/ Let it out and move on ... / They say life caries on," and suddenly the music shifts from gloomy to buoyant.
The opening track on Up, the appropriately named "Darkness," seesaws between a delicate, haunting melody and a rhythm that shudders like Nine Inch Nails. It's about confronting childhood fears. "The song was going to be called 'House in Woods,' " Gabriel said. "In the woods where I was growing up, there was an old lady who lived there, and she had newspaper all over her windows, and we were terrified of her. ... She seemed like a witch to us small boys. Of course it was ridiculous, but at the time it was very real."
Another song, "My Head Sounds Like That," uses classical instrumentation and gurgling percussion to explore how certain experiences sometimes lead to a heightened sense of reality.
"The example I like to give is sometimes when you're about to throw up, suddenly your sense of smell gets really vivid," Gabriel said. "The same thing happens with hearing, whether it's a knife scraping on the toast or a guy hammering on the next wall. You just become very sensitive to that."
The late Qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, introduced to Western ears by Gabriel on the 1989 soundtrack to "The Last Temptation of Christ," is featured on Up's epic, string-saturated "Signal to Noise," recorded eight years ago.
"It means a lot to me because he's like a Pavarotti figure — one of the great singers of our time," Gabriel said. His family has been sending us some other tapes, so we're trying to find some stuff that would be good to release that would still honor what he's done in the past, but some of them are not very good recordings."
Up may not be as upbeat as 1986's So or as melodic as Us, but fans will likely find Up worth the wait. The question is, why did Gabriel take so long?
"Part of the reason is, whenever I get bored I come up with a new idea," he explained. "So we ended up with about 130 ideas. Also, I did this Millennium Project that was supposed to be this six-month diversion [but] ended up taking two years. I've also been pursuing other things with human rights, working with apes and world music stuff with WOMAD."
Fans probably won't have to wait another decade for the follow-up to Up, though. "I think there will be three or four records that come out of this [past] period [of writing], so that way it's not so bad. It's still slow by most people's standards, but sometimes I get writer's block."