The Best of Peter Gabriel

People aren’t born with good taste; it’s a phenomenon you edge into if you’re lucky. Plenty of kids grew up with KISS and Save Ferris records. Peter Gabriel was my first Serious Crush, and with all due respect to Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter, I still love the old frog. In the summer of my sophomore year in high school, which coincided with one of those century-long breaks between albums that older Gabriel fans had learned to expect, I checked what was then called Security out of the public library. Tribal drums. Oblique references to Jung. A song called “San Jacinto” boasting i in its last forty-five seconds the creepiest Fairlight sample — some kind of manipulated basso whistle — in recorded music (fans know the one I mean). A song about shocking the monkey that might’ve been about shocking the monkey whose video creeped the fuck out of me as much as the Fairlight sample in “San Jacinto.”

As correctly as carpers have dismissed the eighties as a time of rapine and greed, it was also a period when musicians enjoyed the largess of label recording budgets; if you were a Peter Gabriel, this meant a last shot attempt to exploit growing stardom to make an album that honored his influences. So was a perfect gateway. Fairlights, sure. Also: hi-hats, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Youssou N’Dour, the poetry of Anne Sexton. In “Sledgehammer” Gabriel wrote and sang the only convincing Otis Redding homage by an English public school graduate. With “In Your Eyes” he created John Cusack and Ione Skye for the purpose of watching them fall in love to a song about the kind of desire from which doorways to a thousand churches, light, and heat spring. In some ways “In Your Eyes” is one of the subtlest of Bowie tributes. Think about it: the church of man-love is such a holy place to be.

Three years passed before he released a lumbering, sincere record About Relationships. Anticipation led to a high chart placement for US — it’s hart to remember that Peter Gabriel was a genuine star in 1992 — before the mass audience he’d gained in 1986 realized “Steam” wasn’t another “Sledgehammer,” although, boy, did it try. As my interest in most of his records waned, I still listened to Passion. This ostensible soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ celebrates relationships too: Gabriel’s to music from many lands. Unlike his forebears he respects distance; he’s an art school rocker who used to dress as a flower, after all. Turns out this distance gives him the proper respect for the sounds of Zaire, Sudan, Morocco, and Ethiopia. Passion contains the most committed music of Gabriel’s career. Even when the arrangements get bombastic, he’s generous enough to allow the players to do it on their own terms. Often the synthesis of Gabriel’s keyboard and percussion effects and these native players is breathtaking.

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