Ever since he bowed out of groundbreaking prog-rockers Genesis back in 1975, Peter Gabriel has made his name as a proud foster parent of world music, combining the rock and soul of his roots with a more global approach. He's taken that image quite seriously, and on Big Blue Ball he's gone all out.
Over three different weeklong sessions in 1991, 1992 and 1995 at his posh Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England, Gabriel held court with a slew of international innovators, creating a lush abstraction of musical styles. Percussion-heavy as usual, the album kicks off with the lush single "Whole Thing," one of just two tracks on which he sings lead. With guitar flourishes from Karl Wallinger of World Party and Waterboys fame, the song is a throwback to the years of Gabriel's greatest hits, tunes like "In Your Eyes" and "Sledgehammer."
What immediately follows is a flight around the world. On "Habibe," Natacha Atlas sings in her immaculate Indian tongue, with the Hossam Ramzy Egyptian Ensemble stringing everything together over a funky-ass techno Bollywood beat. Afro-pop legend Papa Wemba and his band caterwaul expertly over flamenco guitar on "Shadow." And then France's Deep Forest, a commercial success in early techno, lays down a somber bass line on "Altus Silva" for singers Joseph Arthur and Iarla î Lionáird to volley pop and operatic verses respectively. Supported by gravel-voiced Gabriel and Wallinger, Arthur also leads "Exit Through You," and it's another throwback, this time verging a bit on adult contemporary.
The album bounces around like, well, a "big ball" for the duration, most of the time landing someplace unexpected. Sinéad O'Connor's "Everything Comes From You" is a haunting anti-war treatise composed by Japanese master Joji Hirota, with striking flute from Guo Yue. "Burn You Up, Burn You Down" is Gabriel again in retro form but with the Holmes Brothers adding needed groove on the chorus.
"Forest" combines, to orgasmic effect, the tribal protestations of vocalist Hukwe Zawose with a mix of computerized and djembe percussion. Madagascan singer Rossy raps "Jijy" over complex programming. It's truly a trip around the world, ending with "Big Blue Ball," a Wallinger composition that rounds out the experience with a perfect meld of Gabriel's celestial pop and the best of what the world has to offer. Why it took so damn long to edit and release this album is unclear; the only complaint I have is that some of the songs sound about a decade stale. But when wines are made with such quality grapes from vineyards so variegated and pure, it's pretty easy to ignore the vintage firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Gabriel, Big Blue Ball (Real World) ***1/2