25 Years Ago: Peter Gabriel Takes Off His Masks for the Dark and Personal ‘Us’
Peter Gabriel had been a man of many, many masks – sometimes, dating back to his time with Genesis, quite literally. Over the years, he'd written about lab animals, faith healers, suicidal poets and political martyrs, among others. With Us, released on Sept. 28, 1992, he turned his gaze inward.
This was no coincidence. The end of a pair of relationships, coupled with an estrangement from his daughters, brought Gabriel to therapy. As he examined what his life had become, and his role in all of it, Gabriel began to see the value in speaking more directly to his fans.
"I think the experiences and the consequent therapy were crucial to the record," Gabriel told the Washington Post in 1993. "I'm certainly more comfortable in my own skin than I was before, and I think that manifests itself in everything I do."
The roots of Us trace back to So, Gabriel's blockbuster album from six years before. Daniel Lanois returned as co-producer on the follow-up sessions, but circumstances — not all of them negative — ended up scattering sessions from June 1989 through June 1992. Beyond his rocky personal life, Gabriel had notable successes with soundtrack work and huge benefits; he also built a studio and boutique label.
"I see Us as a continuation of something we agreed on So: to strip away any kind of a veil," Lanois told Team Rock in 2016. "I didn't want Peter to be hiding behind a mask. He had done so literally in the past. No veils any more. He agreed with me. We went on to make touching music on So. That philosophy came on into Us, and became more revealing."
Unfortunately, Gabriel's union with his childhood sweetheart faltered along the way; then he had an over-publicized pairing with a Hollywood actress. As the inner toll mounted, he poured all of it into song. "I let my emotions go in this album," Gabriel told the Independent in 1993. "That's very evident."
Watch Peter Gabriel Perform 'Washing of the Water'
Despite the fact that Gabriel rose from a late '60s-era teen songwriting collective at England's Charterhouse School to become the flamboyant, costume-wearing frontman of Genesis, his private life had always heretofore been low profile. Years of counseling (a direct inspiration of "Digging in the Dirt" from this album) followed – and with it realizations about songwriting, celebrity and growing up.
"There were more negative and vulnerable parts in my personality exposed when I made this record," he told the Washington Post. "I used John Lennon as a model in this: In 'Jealous Guy,' he wasn't afraid of bearing the negative parts of his personality, which was positive. If you look in the childhood of a lot of successful people – whether they be presidents, generals, film stars, or musicians – you often find something missing in childhood that's compensated for with the attention they receive in adult life. You particularly find that in the entertainment world, where's it's easy to stay in a permanent state of childhood or adolescence – and I can think of a few well-known examples. To make the transition out of that into adulthood is important."
The collapse of his marriage is laid bare on tracks like "Washing of the Water," "Blood of Eden" and "Secret World," but Gabriel cautions that Us isn't simply a breakup record. He also discusses more universal themes about miscommunication on tracks like "Come Talk to Me" and "Only Us." "In a sense, this album was about relationships," Gabriel said in an interview with his website. "On a personal level and on a more social, global level, I think the same principles apply."
As he completed Us, Gabriel later admitted, the sessions themselves became a kind of therapy. "I have been through depressed times," he told the New York Times in 1991, "but for the last few months, maybe a year, I've felt much lighter."
Old sounds combined with a new narrative on "Come Talk to Me," the album's anthemic opening duet with Sinead O'Connor. Gabriel took rhythms he'd recorded with the Senegalese drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose back in 1980, and combined them with a examination of the alienation his daughters felt as their parents split.
The hymn-like "Washing of the Water" found Gabriel switching to a strikingly vulnerable falsetto, while the album-closing "Secret World" provided perhaps his greatest solo construction: An epic tale of doomed love, reduced to nothing more than stolen moments. This episodic triumph was powered along Tony Levin's bouncing "funk fingers," an invention from the So tour in which the long-time bassist attaches modified drumsticks to his hand.
As with the "Blood of Eden," Gabriel makes direct reference to Adam and Eve during "Secret World," perhaps pining for an opportunity to go back to the beginning – to start over. "In all the places we were hiding love," he sings, "what was it we were thinking of?"
Listen to Peter Gabriel Perform 'Secret World'
Elsewhere, Us moves beyond the framework of relationships on songs like "Only Us," which builds off a theme where "the further one gets, the less one knows" – a message based on Sanskrit teachings that earlier inspired George Harrison to complete 1968's "The Inner Light." "Digging in the Dirt" was likewise expanded through Gabriel's contemporary reading of Why We Kill: Understanding Violence Across Cultures and Disciplines, a multi-writer exploration of commonality among murderers.
"Fourteen Black Paintings," Gabriel's collaboration with John Paul Jones, builds off the musical textures of the 1989 Passion, his soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. Here, Gabriel explores his reaction to a visit to Mark Rothko's gallery in Houston, where he saw a series of murals focusing on the struggle for civil and human rights.
Of course, it's all not quite that heavy. "Steam" works as a funky first cousin to "Sledgehammer," while "Kiss That Frog" makes light of every suitor's obvious weaknesses. "'Come Talk to Me' means more to me in the long run than 'Kiss That Frog,' which is more of a throwaway," Gabriel admitted in his talk with the Post. "But it's important for me to have both sides present – different moods, different feelings."
Even so, Gabriel later admitted that Us – which more often featured a moody musical palette very much in keeping with its introspective subject matter – might have simply been too dense for casual fans. "Steam" made it to the U.K. Top 10, while "Digging in the Dirt" reached the Top 25. But neither created much buzz in America, and the album (though certified platinum by Billboard) sold millions less than So.
"It was quite heavy for a lot of people, in terms of content and also sound," Gabriel says on his website. "Most records, particularly in America, everyone brightens up the top and makes everything bright, jangly and awake – and I was trying with this record to take a different approach, and make things duller. What seemed interesting to me, I think, to some other people’s ears just seemed bad. There was that issue."
In time, however, Gabriel said Us began to connect with fans on a deeper level. Certainly, his attention to detail rewarded careful listening. In fact, every element of this era – from the album cover, with its theme of absence, to the square-and-circular stages constructed for the tour – focused on telling this album's larger, profoundly emotional story.
"Although Us was not nearly as big a seller as So," Gabriel said in a talk with his website, "I’m pleased that it is now getting better regarded, with hindsight – and I think it has some of my best songs on it."
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