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Eight years after the release of Us--a meditative, self-flagellating rumination on his breakup with Rosanna Arquette--Peter Gabriel has all but disappeared. Perhaps that's to be expected when a musician spills his guts with no one there to hold the bucket; it takes a good while for the man to put himself back together. Us was a rather joyless record--rock as art, art as therapy, therapy as collapse. Save for an ambitious but stopgap live album in 1994, Gabriel has existed less as pop star and more as a world-music mogul, releasing dozens of albums on his Real World label while issuing none of his own. And when he finally does have something to offer, it's available only through his eponymous Web site--which, alas, has rendered it nearly invisible.
But OVO: The Millennium Show is not meant for mass consumption, despite the fact that it will be released in stores this month. It's a save-the-world, multi-generational concept album on which Gabriel sings only a handful of tracks, and even then, he's often joined by the likes of spectral-voiced Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan, and erstwhile folkie Richie Havens, though the latter two sing as though they're filtered through a PG echo machine. (That, perhaps, is the point: Havens plays the father; Gabriel, his son.) OVO sounds very much like a Peter Gabriel disc (he wrote the music, arranged the strings, and plays keybs and piano) and feels so much like one (melancholy atmospherics buoyed by tribal rhythms), but it belongs as much to the extensive, imported supporting cast as to its maker. That said, Gabriel's lone solo turn, "Father, Son," is the disc's centerpiece--a son's solemn lament sung by a man whose voice forever sounds like a symphony performed on sandpaper.
The album is essentially a soundtrack to a multimedia event being staged five times a day in the Millennium Dome just outside London; a conflagration featuring costumed performers, stories-tall steel-and-wood sets, and an Industrial Revolution theme, it looks like something designed by M.C. Escher and staged by Disney. But stripped of its spectacle and story (about a father who tends the land, a son who destroys it and himself, and the daughter who survives them both), the disc is lush, evocative, poignant, ethereal--or, the "pop" version of Passion, in which the foreign (a tanpura, Dhol drums, Ney flutes, and so on) sound familiar and become immediate. But that's what Gabriel has always done at his best: He soaks in the exotic until he's no longer a dilettante, but an interpreter who makes the language his own.