Ordinarily, albums have choruses, hooks, songs -- hey, maybe even a thematic element or two, if the artist feels particularly ambitious. By contrast, Up (ten years in the making and, Lord, don't it feel like it?) is all about epic psychodramas and operatic motifs. Then again, Peter Gabriel always sought an artier, more sophisticated pop music than that of his contemporaries. With that in mind, the new album might be his greatest achievement: It's so arty, it's damn near impossible for mere mortals to comprehend.
Layered to the point of impenetrability, Up would be easy to laugh off as just one more egghead ego piece if there weren't an impassioned intelligence behind it. Gabriel has always been a brainy composer -- how many other MTV notables wrote songs about Stephen Biko or turned global politics into a wicked children's nursery rhyme? Consistently, he has been able to smartly merge pop conventions with lyrical and musical complexity. But Up merely feels insular and uncomfortably numb. This overproduced album drains away the romantic soul-searching of Us and the full-bodied emotion of his masterpiece, So.
Compositions as densely knotted tangles of mood, these ten songs -- clocking in at an unwieldy 66-plus minutes -- are heady and fascinating in their sweep. "Sky Blue" and "I Grieve," for example, possess a widescreen sonic reach. The real tragedy of Up, though, is its sacrifice of Gabriel's human connection with his audience. Though he's always challenged his disciples to embrace his eclectic interests, the point was to make the exotic universal, to find the common threads between Third World and First World arrangements. With Up, however, his experimentation is chaotic, haphazard, impatient. The songs feel distant and languid, and their relentless shape-shifting undercuts any sense of momentum. Even the best moments, "Growing Up" and the disturbing paranoia of "Darkness," are sullied by too much studio clutter.
Give the album five or seven or 25 spins, and its sheer scope will impress you. But in the end, Up plays like a foreign film without subtitles. It feels beamed down from a distant planet by aliens. It requires a lot of patience for not enough reward. It leaves you longing for artists with less highfalutin ambition and more vulgar hooks.