2 x Vinyl LP, Vinyl Box Set, Compact Disc (CD)
“Panopticom,” the pulsing lead single from Peter Gabriel’s long-awaited new studio album i/o, arrived with the first full moon of 2023. On each subsequent full moon, Gabriel released another song from the record; each new moon brought an alternate mix. The songs were released sequentially so that i/o inched closer to completion month after month. “Closing track “Live and Let Live” rose alongside November’s full moon, finally giving fans the ability to listen to i/o in its entirety. Experiencing the full album’s hour-plus emotional arc feels euphoric, like the exhalation of a long-held breath.
The slow-drip rollout of i/o reflects two important aspects of Gabriel’s artistry: patience and impishness. His last studio album of original material, 2002’s Up, came a full decade after his blockbuster divorce record, Us. i/o took another 21 years. Gabriel is a restless tinkerer and a details-obsessed pop craftsman, and you can hear his two decades of work throughout i/o. Like Up, it’s a dense, meticulously crafted album, with sessions from eight recording studios and a personnel list stretching into the triple digits. The meticulousness comes into even clearer focus when listening to the “dark-side” mixes next to their “bright-side” counterparts. Gabriel finds depths of nuance within the same set of stems, and the character of a song can change dramatically depending on which elements he chooses to emphasize. There’s a little of Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson in Gabriel’s use of session musicians and studio ambiance to create his perfectionist pop jewels. He’s long faced accusations of overbaking his material, but a less labored-over version of i/o wouldn’t have captured the spirit of these songs with the same level of exquisite precision.
Gabriel’s mischievous streak is apparent in the i/o roll-out campaign. Thumbing his nose at convention has been a key part of his identity since his Genesis days. The man who just forced us to adjust to a snail-paced album reveal is also the man who dressed in bizarre stage costumes throughout the ’70s, re-recorded several of his albums in German, and sent an extended dick joke to the top of the Hot 100. The irreverence seeps into the music on i/o in spurts. “Road to Joy,” accompanied by Ai Weiwei’s Middle Finger in Red, is defiantly, deliriously bright-hued, and the title track’s animal imagery (“We all belong to everything/ To the octopus’s suckers and the buzzard’s wing”) is played for childlike laughs.
More often, i/o is contemplative. It’s not quite as dark or heavy as Up, a grief-stricken album that sounded at times like Gabriel fronting Nine Inch Nails. But songs like “And Still,” written for Gabriel’s late mother, and the post-apocalyptic “Four Kinds of Horses” reveal a songwriter still capable of staring down the void. Half of i/o is given over to ballads, and they’re uniformly outstanding showcases for Gabriel’s wizened voice. He’s 73 now, and he’s not obscuring his age with digital trickery or imperfection-smoothing backup singers. His range has come down an octave or two over the years, and his vocals have taken on a raspier edge. On the ballads, Gabriel really leans into the gravelly qualities of his voice, giving moving performances on the orchestral, Randy Newman-esque “Playing for Time” and the restorative “Love Can Heal.” On groovier tracks like “This Is Home,” he sounds a bit like his old friend David Byrne, another foundational avant-pop figure who continues to push boundaries into his twilight years.
Despite its long gestation and army of contributors, i/o feels remarkably cohesive. That’s largely thanks to three musicians—bassist Tony Levin, guitarist David Rhodes, and drummer Manu Katché—who have been with Gabriel for decades and grown alongside him. All three are terrific on the album. Levin’s steady, funky thump enlivens even the gentlest tunes on i/o, and Katché plays with infectious, jazz-influenced swing. For his part, Rhodes is a chameleon, lending jagged stabs of electric guitar (“Panopticom”) or painterly washes of 12-string acoustic (“So Much”) wherever they’re needed. Gabriel has worked in a wide variety of styles over his solo career, but his trinity of trusted sidemen have helped shape his wanderings into a coherent body of work. i/o is another triumph for that core lineup and the latest masterwork in a discography full of bold choices and vivid songwriting. Twenty-one years after Gabriel began work on it and 11 months after the release of its first single, we can finally confirm that i/o was worth the wait.