It was supposed to be a stopgap, a way to mark time between real records — a soundtrack project released ten months too late to support the movie (in this case, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ), its 22 wordless tracks of largely nonwestern rhythms and scales had zero chance for radio play. As a follow-up to the commercial juggernaut that was So, it was a disappointment. But in the arc of Peter Gabriel’s career, Passion is a high point and a milestone.
Gabriel’s previous soundtrack effort, Birdy, was more of a remix record, consisting mostly of reworkings of previously-released material. Passion, though, was all-new in a number of ways. It marked Gabriel’s first full-on foray into world music. Where African and Brazilian rhythms had underpinned much of his previous solo work, he had previously combined them with classic pop structures. Passion announces its break from this approach with the opening track, “The Feeling Begins.” An Armenian doudouk, playing a traditional lament, is answered by L. Shankar’s Indian violin; the conversation simmers until it explodes in a flurry of North African rhythms, punctuated by roaring rock guitar.
Too much so-called “world music” cops only the exotic surfaces, forcing them into tried-and-true pop contexts: Scottish fiddles with drum machines, Senegalese vocals with drum machines , Gypsy guitars with drum machines … you get the idea. But by building their compositions from the ground up with elements from different traditions, Gabriel and his collaborators create something entirely new — a world music that is truly global, partaking of many musics but ultimately tied to no single source. Passion paved the way for later experiments in the same vein by hybrid artists like Afro Celt Sound System and the late Hector Zazou.
Speaking of Afro Celt Sound System: Not so incidentally, they recorded for Gabriel’s label Real World Records, which he founded to provide mainstream distribution for nonwestern and traditional music. Real World has become one of the most important labels in world music circles, and Passion — the first disc released under the imprint — introduced the label’s distinctive graphic design, the now-familiar trade dress that unifies its diverse releases, as well as its unique aesthetic, simultaneously tradition-grounded and forward-looking. If only as a coming-out party for Real World, Passion is an enormously important record, using Gabriel’s artistic cachet to force the critical community to take world music seriously. (Radio, as always, was a different story.)
On wholly atmospheric pieces like “Zaar,” Gabriel brings his compositional method to its apex. The layers of loops rise and recede, a studio creation evolving as organically as any jam session, unfolding like a flower in a time-lapse film.
Gabriel had a lingering reputation for making music that was cold and cerebral. Whether that rep was deserved or not — and I would argue that it wasn’t — Passion achieves moments of tremendous emotional power, especially in the use of voices. There are no intelligible lyrics, but the disc is shot through with wails, wordlike chants, and gut-deep screams. The title track juxtaposes radically different vocal styles to devastating effect. In the film, it soundtracks the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. Against Jon Hassell’s mournful trumpet we hear the moans of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; before his death in 1997, Khan was the most renowned Pakistani qawwal, or devotional singer, of the 20th Century, and Passion was for many Western listeners a first exposure to his enormous voice. He was legendary in the Islamic world for his explosive singing style and for the ecstatic quality of his performances, but Gabriel casts him against type here to give voice to the tormented Jesus, in a performance that builds from murmurs to cries. In the depths of despair, Khan’s anguish is answered by the pure tones of a choirboy — soothing, but also remote — and by the restless flutterings of Youssou N’Dour’s high tenor. It’s tempting to read the different vocal lines of “Passion” symbolically, as representing the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, or the global spread of Christianity, or the differing strains of post-Judaic monotheism; but whatever the schema behind the choices, it’s a brilliant, harrowing piece of work.
Nestled among the semi-improvised studio experiments is one of Gabriel’s most flat-out beautiful pieces, “With This Love,” present in both instrumental and choral versions. After years of working in rhythm-based compositional methods, it’s almost shocking o hear Gabriel operating in something close to classical mode. It ain’t Bach, surely — but it speaks of the sacred in a language that Bach would recognize.
Those who listened to Passion knew they were hearing something extraordinary. But at the time, it was not the record we had been waiting for. We were all eager for new pop music from Peter Gabriel, for a follow-up to So, and Passion’s compositional innovations and bold aesthetic seemed important mainly inasmuch as they hinted at the sound of the next record. But when Us finally emerged 1992, after six years in the making, it proved a critical disappointment. The blend of influences, so intoxicating on Passion, already seems mannered, and the layered percussion loops threaten to swamp the pop structures, rather than support them. Although he’s made some interesting music in the years since, and remains an influential figure, Gabriel has never fully recaptured either the artistic or commercial momentum of his late-80s heyday; his pop hooks have never again been quite as sharp, and his subsequent soundtrack and world-music experiments have lacked both the freshness of Passion and its ability to startle.
In retrospect, it’s easy to recognize Passion as a highlight of his catalog, the culmination and summation of his work. The sound of Passion is the sound of Peter Gabriel in all of his various roles — musician, producer, enthusiast, craftsman, improviser, collaborator, impresario, enabler, catalyst — inhabiting all of them fully, all simultaneously, all in perfect balance, all with their energies directed towards a project of tremendous worth and importance. I have no idea of his religious proclivities, if any — but whatever else he may be, Peter Gabriel is a devotee of the Church of Music, and Passion crackles with the energy of devotion.