There are two ways to interpret Peter Gabriel's current single, "Digging in the Dirt." You could take the song on its own terms, and see it as a story about rage and revelation, in which our protagonist decides to dig up "the places I got hurt" and unearths feelings so strong and deep that they run away with him, making him a hostage of his own emotions.
Or you could take it as an invitation to do some digging of your own. As Gabriel has admitted in more than a few interviews, "Us" (Geffen 24473, in stores today) is his most personal album ever, a work inspired by and dealing both with his divorce from his wife of 20 years and the demise of his well-publicized relationship with actress Rosanna Arquette.
Be advised, however, that if your preference is the latter approach, there's not a lot of gossip to be gleaned from the songs here. Because despite its apparent openness about the state of Gabriel's relationships, "Us" is never quite as confessional as it is therapeutic -- meaning that it tends to say more about the singer's mindset than his lifestyle.
Hence, in "Love to Be Loved" we learn that he, well, loves to be loved (not exactly an unusual sentiment for a pop star, is it?) Likewise, "Come Talk to Me" catalogs his need for communication, to know what his lover is thinking, to share in her feelings. And so it goes, giving us glimpses of Gabriel in a variety of emotional attitudes, from the sexual frisson in "Steam" to the romantic refuge of "Only Us."
His ideas aren't always song-title obvious, of course. "Kiss That Frog," for example, uses a frog-prince metaphor to express his sense of sexual inadequacy -- suggesting that, like the pond frog who became a prince after being kissed by a beautiful princess, he will somehow become more attractive and desirable if only he'd be kissed (among other things) by a beautiful woman. It's a simple idea, but wonderfully done, as Gabriel playfully sends puns and double-entendres hopping through the lyric while synths and percussion croak and chirrup behind him.
Clever as such constructs are, though, what carries this effort is the music, not the wit with which Gabriel gets to the heart of his problems with love and relationships. And that's as it should be, because despite their introspective nature, the songs here are as accessible and compelling as anything on "So," his last attempt at mass-market pop.
Like each of his albums since "Security," the sound Gabriel goes for is giddily eclectic, fleshing out each groove with unusual instruments and electronic treatments that seem to build a bridge between techno-savvy Western pop and traditional folk musics. Admittedly, "Us" doesn't quite take that approach to the extremes heard on "Passion," his eerie, atmospheric soundtrack to Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- this is a pop album, remember -- but that doesn't mean Gabriel restricts himself to the obvious, either.
"Digging in the Dirt," for instance, augments its funk-inflected pulse with African and Arabic percussion (djembe, tama and surdu, to be precise) and exquisitely treated bursts of electric guitar, a mix that makes the music seem both lithe and ominous. There's an even broader sweep to "Come Talk to Me," a song where thearrangement includes bagpipes, doudouk (an Armenian folk fiddle), a Senegalese drum ensemble and a Russian folk choir, yet never comes across as unlistenably exotic.
Gabriel is astonishingly adept at combining arcane sounds -- so much so that it's tempting to credit most of the album's success to his aural imagination. Don't, though, because what ultimately holds "Us" together aren't the layers of sound surrounding these songs, but the melodies at their core. After all, what you remember most about a tune like "Blood of Eden" isn't the arrangement's delicate intermingling of guitar, violin and keyboard -- it's the dreamy cadence of the chorus, a lovely, floating melody that expresses the song's mood far more eloquently than the lyric sheet ever could.
And moments like that are easily the best reason to join Gabriel in "Us."