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Album Review: Peter Gabriel – I/O

3 min read

Three decades in the making, I/O is Peter Gabriel’s tenth studio album. Although the official release date is 2nd December 2023, Gabriel has released a new track for each full moon prior to the release. The artist wanted each release to be like ‘getting a lego piece’ of the complete album each time we ‘gaze up at the sky and see the moon getting full.’ The decision is consistent with many of the themes explored in the album.

The initial track Panopticom is an interesting track that flips the theory of ‘The Panopticon’ on its head. The theory of ‘The Panopticon’ highlights a top down system of surveillance. Conversely, Panopticom considers the individual’s view of humankind via an imagined ‘globe of data’ or ‘Panopticom.’ Here, Gabriel questions our reciprocal relationship with data: Panopticom / Won’t you show us what’s going on? / Panopticom so how much is real? / And we pour the medicine down.

Third track on the album Playing For Time is a stripped-back piano ballad that climbs slowly but punctually. The artist’s delivery is soulful, at times husky, and backed up by Tom Cawley’s brilliant piano work. Gabriel explores our perception of time and memory: There’s a hill that we must climb / Climb through all these mists of time. The lyrics are introspective, poignant and relatable.

In title track I/O, which stands for input/output, Gabriel uses metaphor to illustrate his point about input/output and being part of everything: I learn like a baby, I learn like a seed / Spread out my tubers wherever I need. In the final verse the artist switches from using comparative language to describing the process in a literal sense: Into the roots of an old oak tree / Where life can move freely in and out of me. The structure is somewhat formulaic but I/O is saved by Gabriel’s impressive vocals as well as elevating percussion from drummer Manu Katche.

Four Kinds of Horses is an atmospheric track that explores the overlap between religion and peace on the one hand and terrorism and violence on the other. A key influence was the Buddhist Parable of Four Kinds of Horses, which explains how a student can approach spiritual practice. Featuring synthesizers and ‘electric worms’ from Brian Eno, the swirling track has a sparse, but sparkly quality.

Each track on the album features a piece of artwork from an artist chosen by Gabriel. Road To Joy features the artwork “Middle Finger in Pink” by Ai Weiwei which represents a “middle finger raised at authority.” The funky, upbeat track is reminiscent of earlier works such as Sledgehammer, Big Time, and Steam. In this case, however, there is a manufactured quality that feels derivative despite some of the interesting tones and layering.

So Much is a self portrait that discusses the artist’s experience of aging. It builds simply with Gabriel on piano and vocals: Time slips in the mirror / As an old man, I was born / But I’ve grown to be a baby / With a halo and a horn. The poetic songwriting is delivered with an effective Cohen-esque baritone. Backing vocals from the artist’s daughter Melanie Gabriel lead us to a rich chorus which features a brass band behind a string arrangement and bass trombone.

The overall narrative of I/O is well developed and, in many cases, the artist demonstrates songwriting brilliance, impressive vocals, and his intuition for curating unique soundscapes and arrangements. Occasionally, however, we are let down by placeholder tracks that fail to land. The lunar cycle release dates might be blamed for overly protracted closing tracks which feel a touch soporific.