|Peter Gabriel - Us|
|Music Disc Reviews SACD|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Monday, 05 May 2003|
Peter Gabriel was unquestionably a star when he was the frontman of the art-rock incarnation of Genesis in the mid-to-late 1970s, but it was his 1986 album SO that truly solidified his position as a household name in rock and roll pop culture. SO set standards for what could be done with music videos, while simultaneously registering hit after hit after hit song in such a way that his newly expanded audience expected that future albums would be packed with hits.
1992’s US (while following in the trend of two letter album titles that have to use one of the letters from the last album title) is a very different album than SO. This collection of songs makes for a very introspective record that deals with the topic of relationships – more specifically broken relationships and what it takes and feels like to get through them.
Musically, US showed a significant progression from US in terms of production and instrumentation. Vocally, Gabriel has always been a force. His raspy vocals make him a compelling musical storyteller, no matter what the message. Fans of Gabriel’s songwriting raved about the record despite its dark topics. Gone were songs like “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes,” replaced with more profound tracks like the hit “Digging in the Dirt.” While “Digging in the Dirt” is a very capable Gabriel pop song that was a dark departure from what non-diehard fans were looking for, so US did not receive the same amazing mainstream consumer attention that SO received, although US was by no means a commercial failure.
Sonically, US always sounded flat to me. Not flat in terms of notes, but more in terms of what a less than spectacular digital recording sounds like. Flat to me means the opposite of open, airy and vibrant. Perhaps the dirty sound was on purpose to go along with the often ugly, painful and personal lyrical content? Also possible was that Gabriel and his recording engineers, producers and mastering engineers simply were pushing the envelope of digital recording and effects in an era when the technology wasn’t as good as it is today. I have loved US as an album from the moment it was released in 1992, but my concerns about its sound were never addressed until the new stereo SACD release. The SACD release does not change water into wine sonically, but the mastering engineers have found a way to make the original recording have more air in the high frequencies, while giving more heft to the bass. In direct comparison to the CD version of the record, the SACD is heads and shoulders above the older edition.
There were a number of hit songs on US, including the aforementioned “Digging in the Dirt” and “Kiss That Frog.” With somewhat of a hip-hop beat and a more up-tempo grove, “Kiss That Frog” lifts the dark mood of US towards the end of the record. While the drums still sound very compressed on the SACD, Gabriel pops more three-dimensionally from the soundstage than on the CD. Melodically, “Kiss That Frog” is a more familiar, easy to take song than other, more complex compositions on the record.
“Digging In the Dirt” is the other radio hit from US and is also a well-done Gabriel solo tune that keeps some of dingy sound I was accustomed to from the CD. However, Gabriel’s vocals sound better to me on the SACD mix, coming across raspier and more exciting in the higher frequencies. The musical bed for the track is laid back and solidly entrenched in a slow groove, in which Gabriel tells it as it is about his personal pain and how he discovers it.
“Steam” was another hit from US that musically had some of the cachet from SO, but with a less lighthearted set of vocals. The SACD version once again highlights Gabriel’s vocals better than the CD version does. The bass (most likely a Chapman Stick) is also incrementally more detailed on the SACD version.
The mistake in judging US is to hope that it will be another SO. While there are some similarities, the differences are what make the record a gem. I recommend you learn to love the less popular tracks for their song craftsmanship. Gabriel is quite a talent in terms of being a musical storyteller and US has some complex and compelling stories to tell. For those looking at US from an audio standpoint first, it is worth the investment. While I have always been a fan of the performances on US, I will never forget being banned from playing it as demo material when working at a Beverly Hills high-end audio salon in the early 1990s. On SACD, many but not all of the audio flaws have been polished to a never before heard luster. If you have an SACD player, your high-performance audio system will be able to reproduce the difference and your ears will thank you.