Is this the year that earnestness returned to popular music? It’s difficult to answer that question now, but nearly as difficult to deny that, one year after the Sept. 11 attacks, an undercurrent of gravity and melancholy runs through large portions of the pop landscape.
Just such a somber mood links three eagerly anticipated fall releases that otherwise would have nothing in common: Peter Gabriel’s Up (Geffen), Beck’s Sea Change (DGC) and Old 97′s leader Rhett Miller’s The Instigator (Elektra). Unlike Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising , none of these albums deal directly with Sept. 11, but they do reflect the psychological aftermath of that day. Each CD is weighted with dark thoughts and riddled with fear and despair-emotions in ample supply since the towers fell.
Of the three, Mr. Gabriel’s CD has been the longest in the works. Though he released Long Walk Home , a film soundtrack, earlier this year, and Ovo , a collection of the music he wrote for the multimedia exhibit at London’s ill-fated Millennium Dome, in 2000, this is the former Genesis member’s first real studio effort in 10 years.
Always a meticulous craftsman, Mr. Gabriel’s creative pace has slowed in direct proportion to the growing sophistication of recording technology. His fussiness as a producer is sometimes too audible here-a few sections of the album sound obviously, and awkwardly, grafted together via computer and sampler-but overall, the attention to detail makes for rewarding listening. As one would expect from an unapologetic art-rocker, there are details aplenty; most of Up ‘s 10 songs are in the six- to seven-minute range, and so convoluted that a few spins are required to fully grasp their structure. Yet once their inner logic is revealed, Mr. Gabriel’s rambling ways take on a rococo charm.
Though the hook-laden funk-rock featured on many of Mr. Gabriel’s most commercially successful songs-”Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” “Steam”-is absent, the musical multiculturalism that’s been a Gabriel trademark since at least 1980 is well represented. Surprising juxtapositions abound: a turbulent string arrangement and an impassioned vocal by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on “Signal to Noise,” for example, or the laying of crystalline lead guitar by Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green over the Blind Boys of Alabama’s gospel-tinged singing on “Sky Blue.”
Up ‘s reflective and, yes, earnest feel is more reminiscent of Mr. Gabriel’s early solo work from the 1970′s-songs such as “Solsbury Hill,” “Here Comes the Flood” and “Indigo”-than anything he’s recorded in the last two decades. Even his husky voice seems to have recaptured some of the youthful vulnerability that marked his years with Genesis.
And yet the Peter Gabriel of the 1970′s, who reveled in witty allusions and intellectualisms, would never have allowed himself to write a song as emotionally raw as “I Grieve.” The track opens with a subdued beat and a mournful blend of synthesizers, as Mr. Gabriel laments the loss of an unnamed loved one. “They say life carries on,” he sings in a desolate whisper, “carries on and on and on,” each repetition more haunted than the last. Toward the song’s end, the beat turns into a joyful ska rhythm, and those same words about life carrying on become a celebration. But the mood soon falters, the drums fade out, and we’re back where we started, with Mr. Gabriel wondering: “Did I dream this belief or did I believe this dream?”
In the time it took Mr. Gabriel to make one album, Beck Hansen released seven. Mr. Hansen has often been as guilty as Mr. Gabriel of camouflaging the personal emotions in his music with irony or abstraction. This does not appear to be the case on Sea Change . For want of a better description, this is Beck’s most singer/songwriterly album, and it contains the warmest and most human songs he’s penned to date.
Teaming once again with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich-who helmed Beck’s previous best, 1998′s Mutations -Mr. Hansen has created a subtly beautiful sonic backdrop to complement lyrical sentiments that are simple and direct. They’re also on the gloomy side: The sun never shines, the tears keep flowing and happiness is only a vague memory. “Time wears away all the pleasures of the day” is the first line of the aptly titled existential lament “Already Dead,” while the despondent chorus of “Nothing I Haven’t Seen” describes an alienation so painful that there’s no getting used to it: “It’s nothing that I haven’t seen before, but it still kills me like it did before.”
Considering their morose quality, it’s no surprise that songs such as “The Golden Age” and “Guess I’m Doin’ Fine” have a strong country flavor.
Elsewhere, the spirit of that great English depressive, Nick Drake, hovers close by. The sublime mix of acoustic guitar, upright bass and strings on “Round the Bend” recalls Drake’s “River Man.” And “Saturday Sun,” the last song on Mr. Drake’s 1969 masterpiece Five Leaves Left , is paid homage by Beck’s “Sunday Sun.”
But the most striking feature of Sea Change is Mr. Hansen’s singing. Beck’s vocals, at least on record, have often suggested a deep-throated Elmer Fudd. His marbles-in-the-mouth delivery hasn’t vanished entirely, but there’s a new conviction in his voice this time. The aloofness of old has been replaced by something that sounds a lot like honesty.
No one could ever accuse Rhett Miller of lacking honesty. As the leader of the Old 97′s, Mr. Miller has gotten a lot of mileage out of forthright displays of emotion-and follicular superiority. At a recent one-man acoustic show at Fez, he repeatedly whipped his head back and forth during frenzied breaks that I can only describe as hair solos, to the loudly expressed delight of the audience’s female members.
In current parlance, the Old 97′s are an alt-country band, but in a previous era they would have been described as heartland rock, and that term better conveys the big, blustery, heroic quality of their music. With the band currently on hiatus, Mr. Miller has embarked on a solo career. The Instigator , the first album he’s released under his own name, is a winning example of his tuneful and decidedly unironic approach.
On the face of it, The Instigator is far more upbeat than the new releases by Mr. Hansen and Mr. Gabriel. It’s a bright, sparkly guitar-pop record, given extra sheen by the contributions of producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Macy Gray). Two tracks, “Four-Eyed Girl” and “Hover,” are exuberant declarations of romantic devotion. But unease crops up here too, usually having to do with love-or the lack of it. In “Terrible Vision,” Mr. Miller sings about a dream in which his reluctant partner leaves him and, as a consequence, “there was no god that I could believe in.” In “Things That Disappear,” a relationship’s bitter dissolution is just another illustration of life’s, and love’s, essential misery. And on “Come Around,” when Mr. Miller moans, “I’m gonna be lonely for the rest of my life,” his voice is pregnant with desperation.
Yet in the end, The Instigator ‘s message is brashly positive. “I want to live,” Mr. Miller sings in the song of the same name, “I want to see tomorrow … so I can see you tomorrow.” Behind him, the ringing guitars and pounding drums defy gravity, amplifying the point beyond debate.