Review Summary: It ain't no Chinese Democracy, that's for sure
At what point does “development hell” completely taint a product for consumers? When discussing infamous delayed media – Duke Nukem Forever
, Chinese Democracy
, etc. – you’ll often hear some variation of this: “it’s been pushed back for so long that it’ll never
live up to the hype”. But Peter Gabriel’s long-awaited tenth album i/o
is a bit of a unique case, due to the singer-songwriter releasing plenty
of other records in the interim. Granted, they were mostly cover albums and compilations, but hey… gotta take what we can get, right? So here we are at the tail-end of 2023, greeted with the first proper Gabriel album in… drumroll please… 21 years! Now that’s one hell of a gap. The question is: what could the legendary art rocker bring to the table after all this time?
Well, if there’s one thing I can immediately applaud Gabriel for, it’s his commitment to the album’s rollout. The name “i/o” refers to one of Jupiter’s moons (as well as “input/output”), and as such, Gabriel decided to release every song individually to coincide with each full moon. Not only that, but we even get two different stereo mixes of each track! i/o
was released with both a “bright-side” and “dark-side” mix, each giving us a different interpretation of the 12 tracks on offer. Say what you want about the record’s quality (we’ll get to that, don’t worry), but the level of effort that went into the presentation of i/o
But now that we’ve gotten those details and factoids out of the way, I think it’s time to dive right into the musical macrocosm of i/o
. Despite the fact that the record took two decades of reworking and rewrites, the whole experience is shockingly unified and focused; Gabriel delivers much of the same art pop/rock that’s marked the majority of his career, though with a certain world-weariness that comes from his current age. The result is an album that – even in the (slightly) bouncier bright-side mix – comes off as quite subdued and lowkey. This is not a bad thing, mind you, as evidenced by our two first cuts “Panopticom” and “The Court”; Gabriel still manages to expertly juggle pop sensibilities with atmospheric worldbuilding, as these tracks merge unorthodox chord progressions and subtle world influences with catchy melodies and strong vocal performances.
Of course, as we delve deeper into this tracklist, Gabriel gradually expands his sonic and stylistic palette. Some of the best moments on i/o
are the ones that just let the atmosphere speak for itself; just take “Love Can Heal” as an example. Before we even get a chance to hear the first verse, a euphoric wave of synths and violins washes over the listener – as the pulsing bass acts as a heartbeat underneath. When Gabriel does
join in, he does so in such a natural way that the singing just seeps right into the instrumentals. For some more minimalist, stripped-down worldbuilding exercises, “Playing for Time” and the title track pair Gabriel’s vulnerable vocals with tender piano lines; a few horns and strings help to color the sound, but not to the point that they overpower Gabriel’s dramatic, passionate delivery.
But ok, ok… let’s get to the real question that’s on your minds. What’s better: the bright-side mix or the dark-side mix? Frankly, I think it varies on a song-by-song basis. As alluded to earlier, bright-side puts a focus on the poppy elements of the record; the production comes off as a bit glossier, and Gabriel’s voice is more loud and pronounced. Meanwhile, dark-side is somewhat murkier and more bass-heavy, which makes the slower and electronically-inclined tracks all that much more striking. However, as contradictory as it may sound, I actually prefer the bright-side mixes for the slower tracks, and the dark-side mix for the bouncier, poppier ones. That way, the slow tunes are given additional dynamic range, while the more jaunty tunes are imbued with a more organic touch. Still, I don’t really have an overall
preference for either mix, as both bring their own unique sound to the record.
certainly isn’t perfect by any means, though, and that largely comes from two problems: runtime and homogeneity. I previously touched on the album’s “world-weariness”, and that vibe often proves to be a double-edged sword. The same quality that lends a sense of atmosphere and moodiness to the record also
makes it somewhat of a slog – especially in the second half. In other words, it really could have benefitted from a few more spry cuts like the title track or “Olive Tree”. Still, these little roadblocks don’t detract much from what is otherwise an impressive achievement. Decades after his previous album of original material, Gabriel has proven that he can still harness the same artistry and grace that he brought to his heyday. i/o
is fresh, vital, and (for the most part) engaging; more importantly, it proves that Gabriel still has plenty left to say.