Peter Gabriel, i/o: this gentle, sweeping epic is the most beguiling album of 2023

Peter Gabriel is a genius: i/o is a masterpiece
Peter Gabriel is a genius: i/o is a masterpiece - Nadav Kander

Peter Gabriel is a genius. i/o is a masterpiece. That should be all you need to know before diving into his latest resplendent work, decades in the making. A sprawling yet gentle epic of the interconnectedness of everything, no record has beguiled me more all year, slowly sinking its multitude of intermingling musical hooks in me, wrapping me in tentacles of slippery sound and rhythms, moving me with soulful singing and all the while opening out to reveal new layers with every listen. It really is extraordinarily good. And so it should be, after the time it has taken him to make it.

i/o is Gabriel’s first album of original songs in 21 years, a project actually begun sometime in the mid-1990s. Sure, there have been tours, orchestral reimaginings of his own songs and those of others, film soundtracks, collaborations, CD-Roms (remember them?), and the distractions of running his own digital distribution network, world music festival Womad, Real World record label and recording studio complex. Nevertheless, spending decades recording, reworking and re-recording an album’s worth of new material might suggest a crisis of confidence in his own creativity, none of which is apparent in the luscious finished article.

Rather than being overworked to ruin, i/o feels distilled to its philosophical essence whilst being gilded with layer after layer of beautiful detail. Synths ripple and shimmer, drums flicker and pound, guitars slash and tickle, horns burst, African rhythms wind through European grooves adorned with Asiatic instrumentation, orchestras swell magnificently as songs rise to bursting then retract to icily still piano, all stitched seamlessly together from sessions in the UK, Italy, Sweden, South Africa and Canada.

Its omnivorous scope is reflected in songs that tackle worlds inside and outside (the i and the o), as Gabriel and his Greek chorus of backing singers paint lyrical pictures of a man lost and found in time, fearing for our future (Panopticom, The Court, Four Kinds of Horses, So Much), lamenting his own past (Playing For Time, And Still) but ultimately celebrating being alive, here and now (Road to Joy, Olive Tree, Live and Let Live). “I stand on two legs and I learn to sing” he declares on the title track. “Stuff coming out, stuff coming in / I’m just a part of everything.” The dramatic and sinister flourishes of an opening salvo reflecting the information and environmental crises of our time earns a joyful payoff of the album’s ultimately optimistic spirit.

Peter Gabriel's i/o
Peter Gabriel's i/o

I fear that Gabriel, at 75, has become a lost giant of popular music, a neglected colossus whose status has eroded with his unwillingness to stay in the frontline cut-and-thrust of pop culture. In the 1970s, he was the mercurial master leading Britain’s most inventive progressive rock group, Genesis. In the 1980s, he was one of the architects of a rich sound drawing together sources from all over the musical world. After decades out of the spotlight, I wonder will i/o be afforded the attention it deserves? Because this ranks with the very best of Gabriel’s work, which means it is very great indeed. Peter Gabriel is a genius. i/o is a masterpiece. That is all ye need know.