It was over two decades ago when Peter Gabriel last released an album of original songs. That album, “Up,” saw the man behind “In Your Eyes” become obsessed with the concepts of death and decay. It is a difficult listen and I would not have blamed him if he chose to end his career there. Thankfully, however, he has made a return with his tenth solo album, “IO.”
Gabriel is at an interesting point in his career. He is no longer the young man wearing fox costumes and singing ten minute songs about lawn mowing, he is not the progressive, experimental, post-punk artist and he is not the shining pop star from the 1980s anymore either.
“IO” falls into this odd middle ground, making it a schizophrenic album to listen to. It swings from one extreme to the other, from the bright, blaring horns of “Olive Tree” to the somber eulogy of “And Still.” It is a noticeably less weird album than “Up” was, more accessible perhaps, but this is by no means a knock towards either release.
Every track covers a completely different topic, with not much connecting tissue in between and somehow it all works as a complete whole, just not one that has the same consistency or flow as earlier releases. Still, some of Gabriel’s best songs are on here, ones that are destined to go down as some as his most beloved of his late period works. The only time that the album ever drags is with the melancholy “So Much.” It is by no means a bad song, but it is overshadowed by much better slow tracks on the album, and it simply is doing the least.
Always topical, Gabriel’s lyrics do not shy away from relevant subjects. The closing track, “Live and Let Live,” was described by Gabriel in a video message as being inspired by the war in Ukraine, while the first single and album opener, “Panopticom,” is about the interconnected nature of the 21st century.
“IO” has been defined by two incredibly interesting choices by the singer. The first was the decision to release the album’s twelve tracks one by one across the span of the year. Every full moon starting in January, a new track would be released on streaming services, with an accompanying video message from Gabriel himself posted on his YouTube channel, which outlined his inspiration behind the song of the month. This release schedule made it easier to listen to the album across the year, as well as keeping it fresh and constant, at least for me, as the year progressed.
The second thing that makes “IO” a unique record is that there are two radically different versions of the album out there- “Peter’s Version,” if you will. The album features two different mixes, which each put emphasis on different parts of the songs.
Some of the tracks (such as “Playing For Time” and the title track) only have very subtle differences, while others (namely “Road to Joy” and “The Court”) are completely different depending on which version you listen to. Both versions were also released on vinyl. Personally, I prefer the “Dark Side” mixes done by Tchad Blake, though each version has its ups and downs to be sure.
Seeing Gabriel on tour to promote the album was a fascinating experience as well. When I saw him in September, there were still three songs from the LP yet to release. Despite that, about half the show was spent playing almost the entirety of “IO,” with only “So Much” not being performed.
The performances were energetic, Gabriel’s voice (as it is on the album) still held its power and charisma, and the visuals were easily some of the best I have ever seen in a concert. With the help of multiple screens, a variety of visual wonders accompanied each and every song.
Fans can continue to rejoice, as Gabriel has also stated that his next album will not take nearly as long to release as “IO,” with some tracks already having been recorded apparently.
It may not be the easiest decision, but “IO” is my choice for best album of the year. It is personal and deep. It is jubilant and celebratory. It is somber and emotional. It is weird. It is Gabriel.