Throughout his solo career, Peter Gabriel has walked a line ably between the accessibility the pop audience demands and the drawn-out artsiness his inner prog-rocker craves -- recall that he fronted Genesis in its pre-"No Reply at All," Jolly Green Giant-suited phase. His 1986 electronic pop masterwork So continues to stand as one of the most efficient works of the 1980s, mixing flawless hits, passionate ballads and an avant cameo by performance artist Laurie Anderson about birds over the course of nine songs and 46 minutes. His 1992 follow-up, Us, also dazzles with its tight songcraft ("Digging in the Dirt," "Kiss That Frog").
Now, however, Gabriel is overdosing on his ambition. Part of this may stem from the fact that Gabriel is now 52, and that Clear Channel's radio juggernaut has increasingly left old British guys in the dust. If no one is listening, why feel constrained? Even so, Up, Gabriel's first album in 10 years, is at once soaring and confusing, beautiful and tedious, admirable and disappointing. "Darkness," the album's seven-minute opener, starts as a droning industrial rocker and then turns into slowed-down, piano-inflected mush, with lyrics about the woods and monsters "crawled up on the floor like a baby boy." The song begins a string of such exercises. Nine of 10 songs clock in at more than six minutes; themes generally include mortality, paranoia and loneliness; and verse-chorus-verse is in sparse supply. Only when the album draws on Gabriel's trademark glibness on "The Barry Williams Show," or slows to gorgeous crawl on "My Head Sounds Like That," does it fully resonate. Otherwise, Gabriel has left his hooks at the door, abandoning them for a play to be "old master." Too bad he chose to revert back to the "Watcher of the Skies" days of weird Genesis yore to do it.