As I've stated elsewhere on this site, I believe that in music, there are two types of people: Wizards and Warriors. Warriors are strongest when they are young, dazzling the peasants with their sheer brute force and raw energy. Elvis comes to mind, as does Michael Jackson.
Peter Gabriel is definitely a Wizard. Over three decades, he has amassed a formidable audio spellbook, and on his latest, Up, he takes the best bits of it and adds an advanced sense of composition that can only come with experience. Much like Tom Waits on his 1999 release, Mule Variations, Gabriel presents what could amount to a career retrospective, were it not so fresh.
Fair warning to fly-by-night Sledgehammer fans: Peter Gabriel is done with radio. It's hardly surprising, considering that this is an artist whose greatest hits package, Shaking The Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats (also recommended) is mostly comprised of songs that didn't get within a mile of the charts. The few radio hits he's scored have been largely incidental to his real fan base, which is built on material dating back to his prog-rock days in Genesis, or at least back to 1977's Solsbury Hill.
From the first track, Darkness, Up announces that it is not your father's Peter Gabriel. Or rather, it is, but perhaps a Peter Gabriel you'd forgotten about. This is the one who belted out rockers like Back In NYC (from Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway) and I Don't Remember (from his self-titled third album). But just as you settle in for a nostalgic wallow, the music waxes plaintive, and you're reminded that here is a man with a reputation for surprise, and the skill to deliver it.
There are nods to the musical landscape that has changed around him since his last album, Us (highly recommended as well), was released in 1992. Most notable in this vein is Growing Up, which utilizes the only pounding techno beat on the album. But Gabriel pulls it out as just another arrangement tool, rather than the crutch that most Boomer rockers grasp to plead relevance (Sting & Cher, I'm looking in your direction).
One of the most pleasant surprises is the Lennonesque My Head Sounds Like That. Gabriel's voice with a simple piano arrangement is a treat he rarely serves, but it always works, particularly here. On this track and on the spooky Sky Blue, his Ray Charles vocal influence is as strong as ever, though Gabriel adds to it the inherent strangeness he has always seemed to emanate.
The one toe-tapper on the disc is The Barry Williams Show, which at first sounds like an attempt at a radio single, but upon further examination is way too weird to be brushing willies with Enrique Iglesias on MTV. It's clearly a Jerry Springer spoof, and it works well despite being a bit late to the punch on that particular subject.
Personally, I'm glad that Peter Gabriel has given up the fame game in favor of being the world's top weirdo-rocker. The world is full of Warriors trying to stay in the ring, and we could use some good Wizards.
Buy 1986's So if you want really good art-pop. But buy Up if you're feeling just a bit more sinister.