Games without frontiers

Music - Jason Cowley on the return of pop's great experimentalist

In the mid-1990s, I was despatched to report on a festival of new media at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes. This was before the real ascendancy of the internet, when many people believed that the CD-Rom had the potential to supplant the book as our primary medium of communication and learning. Among those in Cannes over that warm January weekend were Andreas Whittam Smith - who, flush from the sale of the Independent, was there to promote his new company, Notting Hill, which was producing a range of elaborate games on CD-Rom that even then I doubted would ever sell - and the experimental rock star Peter Gabriel.

The highlight of the festival was the launch of Peter Gabriel's new CD-Rom, The Explorer, a tricksy offering, produced in association with Apple, that combined music, video footage, interviews and a tour of his Real World recording studio in Wiltshire (doors opening with one magical click of the mouse, and so on). Although it was good to listen to Gabriel talking about his fascination with new technology, it was his music most of us had come to hear. But, as ever, his music seemed to be what least interested him. In fact, he preferred to talk about everything - anything - except his music. Most of all, he wanted to talk about the "superhumanising and empowering" potential of technology.

Technology has certainly empowered Peter Gabriel. On leaving Genesis, those irredeemable public school hippies, in the late 1970s, he became an early pioneer of synthesisers, on songs such as "Games Without Frontiers", a surprise hit in 1980, and on which the young Kate Bush sang backing vocals. He was also among the first to see the potential of the pop video as something more than simply a promotional device. To Gabriel, the pop video was not a means to an end, but an end in itself. It was an entirely new art form. In the mid-1980s, he made a series of startlingly innovative videos, most notably for his song "Sledgehammer", which have since influenced a whole generation of video installation artists.

He has experimented in other ways, too. His interest in music from other continents, particularly from Asia and Africa, led to his setting up the Womad festival of world music; he was also was an influential anti-apartheid campaigner and has worked for both Amnesty and Greenpeace. His lament for Stephen Biko, "Biko" (1980), remains one of the greatest of all pop protest songs (and was memorably covered by Robert Wyatt).

Since being liberated from all financial restraint by the global success of So (1986), Gabriel has produced two major albums, Us in 1992 and now, after a decade of near-silence, its two-character successor, Up. He works slowly, meticulously, and his songs are becoming longer and more tortuous, both lyrically and in construction. But the old restlessness and will to experiment remain unchanged, as does his attachment to favourite musicians such as the guitarist David Rhodes (who once toured with the long-since defunct Japan). His voice has the deep, gravelly texture of old, and his songs still fade with the mere echo of a sigh. Gabriel has always had a good ear for cadence, for rise and fall, and he does melancholy perhaps more adeptly than any other figure in contemporary pop.

Gabriel conceded, in a recent interview, that he seldom listens to modern music and has little or no idea as to what is in the charts. It shows. His new album feels entirely out of time. It sounds like nothing except, well, the last Peter Gabriel album; indeed, at times, I thought I was listening to the last Peter Gabriel album. Up could have been produced at any moment in the past 20 years. Which is part of its appeal: there is nothing modish or opportunistic about it. Just as there is nothing fashionable about his present appearance: gone are the thick, dark hair and saturnine good looks of the days when his partner was the American actress Rosanna Arquette, replaced by a silver goatee and a thinning stubble cut.

Gabriel's songs usually assume the form of journeys - inner journeys. He is at his best when at his most mournful, as here, on the tracks "Sky Blue", "More Than This" and "My Head Sounds Like That". There are disappointments. "The Barry Williams Show", his satire of the culture of the confessional television talk show - the kind of trash produced by Jerry Springer and imitated by Robert Kilroy-Silk and the execrable Trisha - does not work at all. And the violently dysfunctional "Signal to Noise", with its chorus of "Wipe out the noise", leaves you longing for him to do precisely that.

Yet, in the end, Peter Gabriel is incapable of producing something without value. Everything he does has the mark of conviction and the authenticity of a singer-songwriter who, for all his restlessness, eclecticism and wandering, knows exactly what he wants and how to achieve it.

Up is released by Virgin/Real World Music on 21 September