Imagine the scenario when an established recording artiste walks into a record company meeting, after not releasing a full album of new material for almost two decades: “I have this idea. I want to release a single every four weeks on the date of a full moon, then two weeks later I want to release an alternative mix of that same track on the date of the following new moon. I want to do it for twelve songs in total, covering a 48 week period, and towards the end of that we can compile them all together and release them as my new album. Both the twelve full moon mixes and the twelve new moon mixes in a double album package.”
Well not many artistes could possibly get away with that, yet Peter Gabriel is one of those few that could possibly manage to make that concept become a reality. With a legacy of almost 55 years in the music industry, he has achieved enough respect – from both his listeners and record company – to allow him the time to patiently work on song ideas at his own pace, until he personally felt satisfied enough with them to make them public. And even then to spend almost a full year drip-feeding them to the world, while he toured in support of an album that did not exist at that time, and only a limited amount of the material contained within it had been made available up until that point.
For his older audience that have been on this musical journey with Gabriel since the early ’70s, this entirely new approach to finally producing a new album must seem incredibly baffling. At the core of it all is how a modern audience consume music, and whether the entire basis of ‘the album’ being the primary goal of a modern artiste is fast becoming an out-dated concept. With the technological advancements in recent times now giving people the ability to stream a particular song on its own, the focus for many has switched to ‘the song’, rather than the album. And being the man that Peter Gabriel is, one who likes to keep his eye on the pulse of current and forward-thinking ideas, then it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that he has also chosen to focus more on the songs themselves than the final product of the album in which to house them all.
And here I am at the back-end of 2023 reviewing an album that has been slowly eased into the public space since the 6th January this year, the final song being made available on 27th November, just days before the full album, I/O, gets an official release. It’s definitely a new approach. Whether it’s a good one, only time will tell. So, as a listener, you have had two options: to seek out and listen to each song as it was released during the course of a year, or to wait until it was all compiled and released together, so you could listen to it as a full album experience. I have friends that have done the latter, and have avoided each of the four-weekly single releases because they just wanted to hear the album in full… all together. And to be fair, that’s pretty much how I would have preferred to have approached this album too. Maybe because I’m old and have been listening to Peter’s music for the last half a century.
Yet, instead of me pointing any critique as to how we have arrived at this point, at least we have now finally arrived. Yes it’s been 21 years since the release of his last studio album of new material, Up back in 2002. The gestation time for each of his solo albums has vastly lengthened over the last decades. Those couple of year gaps during the early part of his solo career has now reached monumental proportions. So, at his age of 73, I would have to logically assume this will likely be his very last album of new material, because on his present trajectory his next album would probably be released on the same day he got a letter from the king to mark his 100th birthday. With that sobering thought, here’s a rundown of the I/O album, which features the twelve songs in the same order as their single release on both the digital and CD versions, and in a slightly different order for the vinyl versions.
For this review I’m just going to concentrate on the ‘bright-side’ mixes that are featured on the first disc of the album. I cannot say that this is the ‘primary’ version because there’s never been any real directive as to which is which. The CD edition of I/O contains both sets of mixes as two individual albums, with no indication as to which one was ear-marked as the primary or alternative version. In the same way, throughout the last year, the order of bright-side and dark-side mixes for each single has changed, not following any uniform order other than the two-week interval between them. But as I personally find the bright-side ones more pleasing to listen to, then that’s what I’m going to focus on.
The opening track Panopticom is a superb song with low and soft vocal lines during the verses, and a punchy lift during the choruses and post chorus sections. Gabriel’s voice remains as fabulous as ever. Considering he is now in his 70s, it’s astounding just how good he sounds. The song has all the hallmarks of the Peter Gabriel sound, especially with Tony Levin’s highly distinctive bass playing being featured here too. Great song structure, great flow, marvellous sound, catchy as hell. What a cracking way to kick off this album.
The Court starts with a strong rhythmic vibe, which plays such an important role in the vast majority of Gabriel’s compositions. It’s got a fabulous groove and some lovely layers of instruments and backing vocals that make their appearance as the song progresses. I love how the music takes a back seat during the choruses to let the vocals carry the melody. This song is a real grower, and the more I hear it the more I really like it. A fine tune, and it fits perfectly with its placing on the album’s running order.
Playing For Time has that strong Randy Newman vibe; a slower ballad that is primarily piano and vocal, with strings filling out the sound at times, and Tony Levin accompanying on bass. Some of the chord progressions are very much Gabriel, but for some reason I still keep thinking of the Toy Story soundtrack when I hear this song. It’s one of the longer songs, clocking in at over six minutes, and is perhaps not one of the most instant likes for me amongst the twelve songs, but still a decent number nonetheless.
Next up is the title-track, I/O. It’s definitely one of the album’s highlights. How could you not fall in love with that gloriously uplifting and anthemic chorus. Another song that features a lighter-weight verse, to then punch through with a huge sounding chorus – I absolutely love that light and shade approach to song-writing. Probably the most commercial tune on this release, and a perfect pop song, lasting under four minutes. The more I hear this one, the more I adore it, and yes, I think it’s my favourite song on the album. It’s just so well-written, and the hook of the chorus is so joyous that it’s impossible for me to resist smiling when I hear it.
Four Kinds of Horses is a slower number with a lurching pace. Focusing more on atmosphere than strong melody, it gives Gabriel the opportunity to deliver a fine vocal performance. You can clearly hear all those gorgeous qualities and nuances to his voice, which have seasoned so well with age, like a good wine. Another long song, but it takes the album in a very different direction after the upbeat vibe of I/O. I really like how he goes for the lift in his vocal during the choruses, so that it starts to break, and the huskiness of his voice during the main sections.
Road to Joy takes us to the half-way point, and it’s another up-tempo number. Perhaps I’m biased, but for my own personal taste I prefer these bouncier pop tunes. This one really does have a retro character, more in line with his classic So period. In fact, if somebody said that this was written a good 30 years or more ago, then I could honestly believe that to be true. A brilliant tune that is about as close to an ’80s Gabriel song as you are going to get, it has great catchy hooks, an infectious groove, and a huge, rousing chorus. This is Gabriel giving the fans what they love, and still doing it so fantastically well.
The mood and pace changes once again with So Much, and we are back into ballad territory. Vocal and piano take centre-stage, underpinned with bass guitar and occasionally fleshed out with strings, in a similar vein to Playing for Time. In fact, on first listen, it felt like I was hearing the song once again. I’m sure on future plays it will in time develop its own personality, but for me this is probably the weakest part on the album. Yet for those that love these slow, heart-felt tracks, they might equally think of it as one of its strong points.
For me, salvation is just around the corner with The Olive Tree. Yeah you guessed it… it’s an up-tempo number with a huge catchy chorus. I swear, this man does this kind of music so damn well. These are the kind of songs that are so good to listen to in your car, or walking around with your headphones on. Marvellous uplifting melodies, sounding beautiful, joyfully magical – I cannot get enough of them. These are the sort of tunes that I want to play over and over again, and for me they are the highlights of I/O, showing that Peter Gabriel is still at the top of his game when it comes to this genre of music.
Again the pace changes to a slow and sombre vibe for Love Can Heal. It’s a lot more atmospheric, mostly keyboard and synthesiser orientated, accompanied with bass guitar, an occasional solo violin, and female layered vocals for the choruses. For a slower tune, I much prefer this kind of vibe. It has a lot more character than the piano/vocal led songs. It’s not a hugely strong tune, yet it’s lovely to listen to. More soundscape than big with melody, it works well to give the album its light and shade moments, and fits perfectly into the running order.
This is Home follows, chilled and laid-back with a great rhythm. It’s another grower, getting better on each play. Once more, it sounds really good because this album has been so beautifully produced – you’d expect nothing else from something that comes with Peter Gabriel’s name on it. He has always surrounded himself with superb musicians, and worked alongside great producers. He’s a state of the art kind of guy, and as such this is a state of the art production. It’s a fine song, and definitely one to show off the quality of your home hi-fi system.
Next is the haunting And Still, a slow-paced song with lots of character. This is the longest track on the album, heading towards the eight minute mark. It’s piano led, incorporating violin, cello and sometimes a fuller string section too. Now on paper, I normally wouldn’t like a track like this very much, yet somehow I find myself getting lost in it. It’s melancholy atmosphere is really intriguing, and also quite hypnotising. It’s probably Gabriel’s softest vocal performance on the entire album, yet it suits the song so well and gives it that slightly mysterious unease. This is actually one of the stand-out moments on I/O because it feels so very different to rest of the material.
Closing the album is Live and Let Live. It’s quite a light-weight number, with a gentle pace. Nothing really standout and it feels like it’s going over ground previously trodden. The Beatles-esque pre-chorus sections are quite nice as they are something more imaginative, and I really like when the gospel choir comes into the closing repeating choruses, but other than that it feels a bit like filler in comparison to the rest of the album and is probably a little under-whelming as the choice to finish I/O. To be brutally honest, I could have probably done without this track, and also wouldn’t miss So Much either. With a total running time of 68 minutes, these two could have been lost to deliver the remaining ten tracks in 55 minutes. Sometimes less is more, and I think that approach could have made the album feel stronger as a complete body of work.
This is a good Peter Gabriel album. It’s a long way from his four self-titled releases dating back to the late ’70s and early ’80s because his song-writing style has changed so much since then. The music may have taken a different direction over the years, yet intrinsically it still has Peter Gabriel stamped all over it, not just his totally unique voice, but also the very personal qualities that he exudes throughout his music. To quote Steven Wilson, “Peter Gabriel makes Peter Gabriel music”, he doesn’t sound like anybody else, nor does he ever try to. For any fans of his music, in particular from So onwards, they should really enjoy the vast majority of I/O, and as someone who generally prefers his earlier Charisma label output, even I found this to be a really enjoyable album.
Even though it has taken over two decades for I/O to finally be released, there are plans for more brand new music to appear next year. With Peter’s track record, I wouldn’t be holding my breath on that promise, but more than just the dozen songs here were recorded during the sessions that produced this album, and from all reports he’d like to continue with the theme of putting out new songs on a regular basis, even if not fitting the same full moon/new moon concept. In all honesty I think that there will be more new material from Peter Gabriel in the future, but whether that eventually amounts to a new album… who knows?
I/O is released on the 1st of December as a double CD package of the ‘bright-side’ and ‘dark-side’ mixes. There’s also an expanded edition that includes both CDs, plus a Blu-Ray disc containing his ‘in-side’ mixes. These are essentially the same twelve tracks done in Dolby Atmos surround sound. For the vinyl purists and collectors, there’s a double album release of the bright-side mixes, and a separate double album issue of the dark-side mixes too – to buy them both would cost around £80, and that is going to sting… big time (pun intended). And lastly, in March there’s a box set-release that features the CDs, the Blu-Ray, both vinyl sets, a 56-page book, and various other exclusive goodies.
It’s great to finally have a new Peter Gabriel album, but I’m not sure why it would take anyone 21 years to follow up their last release of new material. Nor do I fully understand the reasoning of releasing two different mixes either. I mean, you could realistically have a ten album box-set with ten different mixes of the same material, as there truly is no limit as to how far you could run with that idea. But I am just thankful that it has arrived at last. The individual single releases were never really going to be my cup of tea, as I’m old-school and too long in the tooth to be taught new tricks. I’d much rather delve into a full album’s worth of material in one go, to experience the musical journey. And now I can happily do exactly that.
01. Panopticom (5:13)
02. The Court (4:20)
03. Playing For Time (6:17)
04. I/O (3:52)
05. Four Kinds of Horses (6:47)
06. Road to Joy (5:21)
07. So Much (4:50)
08. Olive Tree (5:59)
09. Love Can Heal (5:59)
10. This is Home (5:04)
11. And Still (7:41)
12. Live and Let Live (6:46)
Total Time – 68:09
Peter Gabriel – Vocals, Piano, Synths, Percussion, Manipulated Charango, Glass Harp, Programming
David Rhodes – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Tony Levin – Basses
Manu Katché – Drums (tracks 1,2,3,4,6,8,10 & 12)
A cast of over 100+ – Musicians, Vocalists, Choral, Conductors & Arrangers
Record Label: Real World | EMI
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 1st December 2023