Peter Gabriel review, i/o: A sublime and long-awaited return

Like rock’s answer to David Attenborough, he immerses himself in the natural world

Helen Brown
Thursday 30 November 2023 14:59 GMT
Sky Blue: Gabriel’s last original album release was back in 2002, with ‘Up’
Sky Blue: Gabriel’s last original album release was back in 2002, with ‘Up’ (Nadav Kander)

Does anyone make bass lines as slickly, gut-churningly hypnotic as Peter Gabriel? You feel that deep, cellular shiver from the first notes of i/o: his first solo studio album of original material in 21 years. Those low segmented frequencies squirm like the “electric worms” Brian Eno is credited as playing on a record that offers a couple of bombastic bangers – “Olive Tree” and “Road to Joy” – but mostly takes its slow, slippery time to work its hooks into you.

Looking at online reactions to the new songs (one released each full moon this year), I notice fans clocking the same deep-stomach impact they first felt upon hearing Gabriels’ Eighties hits – songs like “Sledgehammer”, “In Your Eyes” and “Don’t Give Up” – on car stereos. All those tracks appeared on his most radio-friendly album, So, in 1986, around the same time as the average Brit’s car speakers got good and the CD market was taking off.

Gabriel, the son of an electrical engineer and a musician, born on a farm and made unhappy at a posh public school, made full use of the new tech to send sound waves of emotion shuddering through the musculoskeletal system. Above the primal vibrations soared the soulful graze of his voice: smart, cynical and soulful – jettisoning some of the proggy pretension of his early Genesis days (of which I’m still a fan), without betraying their questing spirit. He dug down into his psyche while reaching out to the world, inviting musicians into his Real World studio and standing up for humanitarian and environmental causes without appropriation or condescension. He’s always seemed like one of the good guys.

At 73, Gabriel retains some of his spikiness. Opener “Panopticom” squints warily at a surveillance culture over verses with rolling bass lines that recall 1992’s “Digging in the Dirt”. But while the latter explored the painful growth of introspection (“I’m digging in the dirt to find the places I got hurt”), this new track encourages listeners to flip the gaze on those in power and call them to account. “The Court” – driven by speaker-rattling tin can percussion – addresses cancel culture. The brass-backed bridge is a little am-dram, but it’s fun to hear Gabriel’s accusatory whisper again, and the lurching, tumbling piano towards the song’s end has a lovely Tori Amos vibe.

Political commentary over, other songs are clear-eyed hymns to the connectedness of all organic life: the fleeting joy of it and the inevitability of its ending. There are two terrific bangers that dial directly into the elastic wallop of Gabriel’s Eighties pomp. “Road to Joy” begins with a mix of synth chords over a harp, before a “Big Time” beat kicks in with a funk guitar (think David Bowie’s “Fame”) as Gabriel celebrates the biological miracle of blood flowing around the body of a person awakening from a coma.

“Olive Tree” imagines the singer donning a virtual reality headset, immersing himself in the natural world: tripping out on the intimate understanding of “the fungi under the earth” and the sharks beneath the waves. “Predator and prey sort out their needs,” he sings with unsentimental awe, like rock’s answer to David Attenborough. The song peaks with a fanfare of brass parping out the glory of it all.

This theme continues on the piano-swaying title track, which asks us to imagine the miracles of an octopus’ suckers and a buzzard’s wing, before shrugging that it all depends on “stuff going out, stuff going in… We’re all a part of everything”. Gabriel confronts mortality – quoting the melody of the funeral march – on the jazzy “Playing for Time”. His first wife once said he would always retreat to the piano when depressed, but with the help of a violin, he works through the future fading of all the “ridiculous, sublime” things he cares about to find acceptance. “There’s a hill that we must climb,” he sings, bookending the childhood memory he described in 1977 on “Solsbury Hill”.

“Love Can Heal” is an elegy for the Labour MP Jo Cox, murdered by a far-right extremist in 2016. The marvellously meandering “And Still” finds Gabriel remembering his late mother, wandering through his childhood home still full of her hats and coats. Melodies rise and fall like memories. It’s a spine-tingling journey.

Gabriel has been touring, playing music from the album, throughout 2023 (Nadav Kander)

I’m loath to call i/o a grower, because I’m often an impatient consumer of music. But the tracks on i/o grow both on and in a listener like seeds germinating. Those who like their song structures neat and tidy may struggle with the jazz odysseys, but Gabriel asks very little of his fans – just time. Give him that, and you will find this album gently becoming part of you on a cellular level.  Once you’ve processed the tracks on the “Bright-Side mix” you can wait for a night-time drive to experience them on the slightly murkier lower-fi “Dark-Side mix”. It’s great to have Gabriel back.

Peter Gabriel releases ‘i/o’ on 1 December 2023

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