They say pain is art, and nowhere is that fungus-caked cliché taken more seriously than on Us, Peter Gabriel’s first pop album in six years. Trumpeted as his ”most personal and emotional” album to date, Iron Pete — er, Us — more than lives up to the billing. During that time, Gabriel has endured what sounds like a wrenchingly painful divorce from Jill Moore, his wife of 16 years, and a wrenchingly painful breakup with actress Rosanna Arquette, whom he subsequently dated. Not surprisingly, he feels like a pained wretch. So, like Marvin Gaye, Rosanne Cash, Bob Dylan, and others before him, he has used this trauma as the basis for an entire album.
”Won’t you please come talk to me/ Just like it used to be,” he sings in the sulking, gentle opening track, ”Come Talk to Me” (which is addressed to his daughter but is vague enough to apply to romantic liaisons too). That’s just the beginning of Gabriel’s attempt to get in touch with his feelings and show he’s a sensitive, hurting guy like anyone else. The songs are top-heavy with lines like ”Bring me something to take this pain away” and ”I cry the way that babies cry.” He’s occasionally vindictive but more often forlorn, begging his lover for attention (”Love to Be Loved”) or trying, without success, to communicate his feelings to his ex-lover. Us isn’t an album; it’s a sensitivity-training session.
Granted, emotional turmoil can result in great art, yet Gabriel hasn’t made his angst especially compelling on Us. On his early albums, Gabriel was an authentic mainstream weirdo. Starting with 1986’s mega-smash album So and now with Us, he has shaved away those eccentricities. And without the quirks, he stands revealed as just another depressed, middle-aged rock star going through an identity crisis.
The very pretty and understated edge-of-breakup song ”Blood of Eden,” one of the album’s highlights, pits his voice against the sirenlike caress of Sinéad O’Connor. And despite the presence of up to a dozen musicians on each track, many of them tapping away on African drums and other exotic instruments, the music is spare and taut — he has perfected the sound of brooding-in-the-empty-manor angst. Unfortunately, the songs themselves are terribly long and melodically dull; for breakup songs, there’s no anger in them, just self-pity. ”Digging in the Dirt” has an ingratiating hook, but in two years we’ll probably remember the creepy-crawly special effects in its video more than the song itself.
That the soul-searching, dumped-on Gabriel isn’t all that interesting comes through most clearly in the generally banal lyrics. For all his smarts, Gabriel succumbs to tired water imagery — rivers, drowning, all the rest — as a metaphor for a sinking relationship. ”Secret World,” the climactic but drab seven-minute ballad, loads up the clichés: ”Adam and Eve,” ”on a wing on a prayer,” ”oh the wheel it is turning spinning around and round,” ”we are all the same.” It’s unfortunate that the last six years of Gabriel’s life haven’t been his best. But Us makes you wish he’d go the local pub and use that ”I want to be your sledgehammer” pickup line once more. C+