WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Peter Gabriel has always had a special affinity for the music-video medium, exploring a plethora of special film and video techniques in the interest of infusing his music with a manic visual energy. His solo career has always held my interest, and I credit not only his strong, worldly sense of progressive pop-rock but also his visual inventiveness during the era when music videos were just coming into their own. I have strong memories of my first viewings of such videos as Shock the Monkey and Sledgehammer, which wowed me from out of a crowd of bland, stagy concert clips from other bands.
Peter Gabriel: Play collects all of Gabriel's music videos and throws them randomly together in a package that boasts—above all—supreme audio quality, and a nice array of modest supplements. At first, I wished that the videos had been presented here chronologically, but I quickly became accustomed to the new order, which creates a mood and progression all its own. Following is the track listing, which includes the originating album (using, for his first few self-titled albums, commonly used nomenclature) and short capsule reviews.
1. Father and Son (from Ovo)—The disc gets off to a meditative start with this recent song in honor of Gabriel's father, and of fathers and sons in general. It's an emotionally powerful, nostalgic song, punctuated in the video by black-and-white home movies taken by Gabriel's family. B
2. Sledgehammer (from So)—And now we're thrown straight into what's probably Gabriel's very best music video, in which he plays wildly with style and subject matter. Infused with crazy stop-motion, the video throws such oddities as dancing chickens, gliding soul sisters, singing fruits, and animated chalkboards at you in a frenzied blast of visual zaniness. A
3. Blood of Eden (from Us)—Here's an elegant video that manages to combine traditional religious and mystical imagery with the kind of visual trickery for which Gabriel's videos have become renowned. Sinead O'Connor plays a supporting role, having provided the song's duet vocals. A-
4. Games Without Frontiers (from Melt)—Comparatively primitive video effects make this video a strange bird indeed. More kitschy than effective, the Games Without Frontiers video is nevertheless interesting historically. Combining gymnastics footage from a pan-European games competition with shots of Gabriel distorting his own face, along with nuclear-blast shots and pie fights, there's definitely a comment here about the folly and fear of global conflict, making the video surprisingly timely, but its video effects are definitely of its time. B-
5. I Don't Remember (from Melt)—Here's an odd early video set in a warehouse inhabited by disturbing, white-painted nude people. There's a nightmarish quality to these figures, and they soon come to describe the mental landscape of the song's narrator. I like the Being John Malkovich quality of this one, although some of it seems like strangeness for the sake of strangeness. B+
6. Big Time (from So)—Continuing the spastic energy and animation effects of Sledgehammer, this video is every bit as zany but isn't quite as wholly effective. Still, there's a lot of fun to be had here, with the video's claymation and a hilariously spry Gabriel, decked out in a poindexter suit and tall boots. B+
7. Lovetown—This video is actually quite accomplished, visually, giving us the usual Gabriel imagery, colorful and intricate, but this time, I was struck by the care in composition given to each visual. Whereas the videos for Sledgehammer and Big Time are charged with visual chaos, this one is more considered and artistic. The song, which originated on the Philadelphia soundtrack, isn't as catchy or memorable as those others, but the video is definitely worth a look. A-
8. Red Rain (from So)—Admirably choosing to visualize Red Rain with subtle, even haunting monochrome imagery rather than any kind of red rain, Gabriel gives one of his most famous songs a resonant visual treatment. Fragmented glimpses of performance artists, combined with his own tortured singing, gives this video a nice, understated feel. A-
9. In Your Eyes (from So)—Probably one of the larger disappointments on the disc, the video of In Your Eyes, possibly Gabriel's most well-known song, is plain boring. It tosses together indistinct stock video that makes little sense, along with static shots of eyeballs and candle flames. Oh, and a perplexing shot of cascading candy hearts, bookended by Christ imagery and a flying woman. There's an unfortunate disconnect between the song's emotional strength and the confusing imagery. C-
10. Don't Give Up (from So)—This duet with Kate Bush is interesting primarily because it was shot in a single take, in which the two performers embrace while singing. The camera tracks around them elegantly and finds the performer whose turn it is to sing. All the while, the background seethes with the progressive image of a fiery eclipse that ends in full sunny happiness. A nice, understated effort that conveys emotion well. A-
11. The Barry Williams Show (from Up)—Directed by Sean Penn, this video had comparatively little input from Gabriel, who calls it "Sean's baby." The video captures the song's freak-TV vibe, casting Christopher McDonald as a Jerry Springer type fronting a wild, herky-jerky media circus, replete with S&M trailer trash, scantily clad blondes, and even rivers of blood. Not a bad video, but not incredibly imaginative. It's suggested wholly by the song. B
12. Washing of the Water (From Us)—This video takes a real departure from the manic colorfulness of what's come before, returning to the introspective mood of Father and Son. Composed of meditative nature footage—crashing waterfalls, underwater sunlight, rushing rivers, raindrops on the surface of a pond—and slow-motion footage of people diving into water, the video is nice to look at, but once again takes all its cues from the song. B-
13. Biko (from Melt)—This video is taken primarily from a live performance in Cleveland, 1987, and interspersed with footage from the film Cry Freedom, which chronicled the life of South African freedom fighter Steven Biko. The performance has a nice live energy, and the clips are creatively integrated with the stage performance, but movie-based music videos never do a whole lot for me. They feel more like advertisements than pieces of music-inspired art. C
14. Kiss That Frog (from Us)—Inspired by fairy-tale imagery suggested to Gabriel by the book The Uses of Enchantment, this video is a showcase for some primitive CG animation. You've got to give the video credit for exploring the medium and delivering a spastic barrage of surreal, psychedelic, colorful imagery, but the animation is quite dated. B-
15. Mercy Street (from So)—Inspired by the poetry of Anne Sexton, the song Mercy Street begets rich imagery in its video. Black-and-white, shadowed shots of a foggy beach and of barely glimpsed, cloaked figures suggest an involving backstory. This kind of subtle narrative is my favorite kind of music video, at once echoing the intent of the song and suggesting something deeper. A
16. Growing Up (from Up)—Here's another recent song, in which Gabriel appears with his latter-day bald head and Colonel Sanders goatee. This is a surprisingly fine video, and you can tell right away that Gabriel is keeping up with the visual effects of the day. This is a cool throwback to his zany So days, tossing colorful toy imagery at you, together with humans contained in clear bubbles and spiraling skyscrapers. There's not much sense to this thing, but it's infectiously energetic. B
17. Shaking the Tree—Offering a quieter version of the song than what appears on the album of the same name, this video nevertheless provides a healthy other-cultural visual punch. There's also an appropriately joyous vibe to this one, as Gabriel gets all white-guy-funky with the locals. A-
18. Shock the Monkey (from Security)—One of my personal favorite Gabriel songs, somewhat predictably, features a monkey. But there's much more to it than that, with its strange, monochromatic, inner narrative. This is one of Gabriel's more effective videos, illustrating the sense of fractured consciousness and obsession and desperation suggested by the song. Watch out for the vicious midgets. A-
19. Steam (from Us)—The video for Steam is another early experiment in CG animation, but this one bounces so manically through its visual concepts and styles that you don't really notice the primitive nature of the animation. Plus, it's got that scintillating slow-motion sequence in the ladies' steam room. A-
20. The Drop (from Up)—This video of a recent song is an odd amalgam of CG baby figures and choreographed spermatozoa. That's basically it. C
21. Zaar—This video of a song from Passion (the Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack) is an interesting foray into what appears to be watercolor animation. I expected something quite different, which is perhaps a good thing. It's a short tone poem. A-
22. Solsbury Hill (from Car)—Nothing if not colorful, this early video is a study in hues, using mostly live-action video to explore the color of the every day. There are also some early video effects thrown in, foreshadowing Gabriel's obsession with them. The video ends with a young bride dressed as lettuce. C+
23. Digging in the Dirt (from Us)—An astonishing natural-world, time-lapse experiment, the video for Digging in the Dirt is like a freaky, rock-styled Koyannisqatsi involving animation, claymation, slow-motion, stop-motion, green-screen, lurid close-ups, and general thematic weirdness. It's a strange concoction and one of Gabriel's most fascinating videos. A
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Warner presents Peter Gabriel: Play in a series of generally nice-looking transfers that vary because of age and anamorphic attention. The bulk of the videos, shot more than a decade ago, appear in 1.33:1 full-frame for the TV format, and overall image quality of those is pretty good. Detail is generally much better than I expected. The videos have been transferred with care and appear as sharp and pleasing as can be expected, considering the source material and age. Appropriately, the videos' color palettes are translated with accuracy, and they appear just as vivid as Gabriel originally intended. I noticed typical aliasing on hard edges, but nothing overly distracting. Edge halos are minor.
Faring better are more recent videos—namely, I Don't Remember, The Barry Williams Show, Kiss That Frog, and Solsbury Hill—that are presented with 1.85:1 anamorphic enhancement, and one—The Drop—that appears in enhanced 2.35:1 format. The relative youth of these latter videos provide obvious improvements in sharpness and depth and detail.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
Here's where this DVD presentation really distinguishes itself. With the help of Daniel Lanois and Richard Chappell, Gabriel has given us all new surround-sound remixes of every one of these 23 songs. The disc offers two varieties—Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1—but differences between the two are minimal. One difference that's immediately noticeable is that the Dolby Digital track is presented at a louder default level—usually it's the other way around.
The surround mixes give these familiar songs an all-new richness and envelopment. Activity throughout the soundfield is aggressive yet appropriate, never giving way to gimmicky use of particular channels. It's a natural mix that gives the music a natural, forward-feeling ambience while immersing you in the song. Gabriel's voice is clear and natural and resonant, and instrumentation is effectively separated. Bass is both deep and punchy.
I have virtually no complaints about this surround mix, except to say that a couple of the song presentations are different from what I remember on their given albums. For example, Shaking the Tree is a quieter, less immediately pleasing mix than the original.
The disc also provides the original stereo mix, for you purists out there.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Primary among the extras are short video Introductions to all of the songs (except for Lovetown, Solsbury Hill, Washing of the Water, and Don't Give Up—that last of which disappointed me, because I wanted to hear about the making of one of my favorites on the disc). These are typically a minute or two in length, and they add a brief sense of history to the songs, giving little behind-the-scenes glimpses. Some are composed of new interview footage shot specifically for this release, and others are made up of archival footage shot at the time of album releases. You can choose to enable or disable these segments when you Play All.
Next is a Games Without Frontiers—Live 2004, a mediocre 1.85:1 anamorphic-widescreen segment of a 2004 concert. In the clip, Gabriel scoots around the stage on an It device, along with his daughter, Melanie. The style of this clip annoyed me, seeming like it got into the hands of an over-eager MTV-influenced editor.
Two Music Videos follow. The first is Modern Love, from 1977, and boy, is this a video of its time. Part of me was initially surprised that Gabriel included this hilariously embarrassing clip, which features the singer in what appears to be hockey gear, flailing about in the midst of mannequins. But then, as a rather defensive reader has pointed out to me, there's historical significance to this video, having been filmed a year after Gabriel's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Tour with Genesis. Apparently, the video is considered a breakthrough, and fans have been clamoring for a nicely transferred version like this. Well, here you go! The Nest that Sailed the Sky is a recent mood piece showing what I believe to be the construction of one of Gabriel's unique stage sets.
Three Concert Previews follow. The trailer for the Family Portrait Tour is the most interesting, providing an illuminating glimpse behind the scenes, headlined mostly by Melanie Gabriel's participation. The Growing Up Live clip is merely a collection of shots from the concert, and the Secret World Live trailer is also just a quick commercial.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
A superior collection of music videos from one of the form's pioneers, Peter Gabriel: Play offers scrumptious sound quality, vivid imagary, and good supplements. Overall package quality is surprisingly good, letting you know that much care went into its presentation. Definitely worth your time and buck.