(Disclaimer: Those looking for an overall description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written in the point of view of a Peter Gabriel fan.)
Overall Score: 12/15
Best song: ...Take your pick
Worst song: N/A
Peter Gabriel's previous two albums, III and Security were so moody and atmospheric that they were turned into some remarkably effective music videos. As it turns out, many of those songs also made effective incidental music for a movie; Gabriel reworked some of those songs and wrote a few originals for inclusion in a movie called Birdy, which was directed by Alan Parker and starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage.
The movie is excellent. It's been more than five years since I've seen it, but it still lingers with me. The soundtrack is atmospheric and dark, which fit the mood of the movie perfectly, which is about a Vietnam veteran who suffers a rather intense bout of post-war syndrome. My only complaint about the soundtrack was that I knew those Peter Gabriel songs so well at the time that I found it a bit distracting. In particular, I distinctly remember hearing the chords of “Family Snapshot” pipe up and then losing track of what was going on in the movie. (What? Is that “Family Snapshot” playing?) However, I'm not reviewing the movie, am I?
As far as soundtrack records go, this is one of the better ones that you can get. And don't forgo purchasing this just because Gabriel recycled a few songs from his previous two albums; the originals are more numerous, and the recycled ones are different enough that they're practically new. “The Heat” is the reworking of “Rhythm of the Heat,” and it's much more eerie than the original, but just as wild. Perhaps it sounds even more world-beat than the original did, especially with that extended percussion that seems to get crazier and flashier by the end. It's surprisingly easy to take, even for someone like me who loves Gabriel's singing voice and has a great potential for missing it.
The most important thing I can say about Birdy is that it's extremely consistent. The opening track, “At Night,” draws me in with its thick atmosphere and lonely spookiness, and after that never—for one second—does it let up. Sometimes that would be a bad thing, since albums that never change modes throughout run the risk of getting boring. However, Gabriel cleverly stayed clear of that hurdle by always letting the songs' textures evolve. Occasionally, he's playing wavy synthesizer chords that sound like some freaky planetarium show, but other times he lets a drum machine groove take over the show.
“Slow Marimbas” has a very honest title, and those marimbas sound like rain pattering on the glass of a window. It's spooky and dark, for sure, but there's also a lot of intense beauty in it. Sort of like if you're outside on a dark and cloudy day and it suddenly dawns on you that the scenery is beautiful. (I live in Seattle, so it's good for me to think that sometimes. Otherwise, I'd just be depressed for half the year!) “Powerhouse at the Foot of the Mountain” is the reworking of “San Jacinto.” But the only part of the song that was reworked was the spooky coda, which you might remember featured synthesizers that sounded like out-of-whack wind chimes.
In the end, no matter how beautiful, dark, and moody this is, it is just a soundtrack album. Not a lot of people I know of particularly like soundtrack albums. Moreover, Gabriel's probably more famous for doing The Last Temptation of Christ, and a lot of listeners probably consider Birdy to be weaker. (And I agree with that. No matter how good Birdy is, it doesn't come close to matching the sheer intensity and artistic prowess of that album.) Nevertheless, it comes remarkably close to it, and thus I would also highly recommend it for your collection. I mean, this album was so consistent that I ended up giving all the tracks solid A's across the board. ...It's possible that I was being a little bit nice to it, but heck! Didn't I say that Gabriel created a particular mood right at the beginning and basically stuck to it solidly until the end? Where exactly was I supposed to start marking it down?
At Night A
Eerie! If you like creepy soundtrack music, then I think I've got an easy pick for you. ...This album starts off in this dark, moody way and never really lets up. The synthesizers are echoey and low-pitched while this despondent drum machine loop plays in the background. The chords seem a little bit out-of-this-world (or, rather, somewhere in the rainforests, if those tribal peoples had access to synthesizers). Some listeners might miss hearing Gabriel's voice, but speaking as someone who listens to soundtrack music from time to time (in order to not get too distracted from homework or work), this is just the ticket for me.
Floating Dogs A
I've seen the movie, but I can't say I remember seeing dogs floating... Maybe it's time for a re-watch? (After seeing Bad Lieutenant, I've been feeling the urge to re-watch every Nicolas Cage movie I saw... holy hell, what a crazy movie...) But anyway, this is more of the same. The synthesizers are dark and moody, coming in through mind-warping and bending waves that it's like I'm at a weird planetarium show. There is a drum machine bit in the middle, which is well-done enough that it actually gets the old feet taping. I almost start to think an early '80s Genesis song is about to pop up, or something! (Oh my! Was Peter still listening to their records?)
Quiet and Alone A
Whoah... that cold synthesizer splash I hear at the beginning of this sends shivers up my spine. I know Matthew Modine in that movie was tortured, but... can anyone really be tortured this much? Surely Gabriel outdid himself... This is another bit that basically takes my brain and sends it to some sort of dark realm.
Close Up (From “Family Snapshot”)
Well! Here's a one-minute piano revival of that great song from III. A song with the name “Family Snapshot” makes me think of a lonely guy looking at an old photo and remembering the days when he was last happy... Brrrrr...
Slow Water A
I've listened to a lot of soundtracks in my day (some of my favorite ones are by Vangelis), and I can't think of one that is more compellingly dark than this one. I mean, these synthesizers create such a spooky atmosphere, and it also completely draws me into its horror. It also makes an interesting listen outside the context of the movie. Although that wouldn't surprse you too much since the music was one of the movie's defining elements! Those dark pulses he creates throughout the song are utterly mystifying... As if those atmospheric chords weren't enough to draw you in by themselves...
Dressing the Wound A
...At some point, it's going to be to repetitive for me to always be pointing out that these songs are dark and moody. This is a consistent soundtrack, which made sense for the movie, because it was dark and tortured pretty much the whole way through. But at least this one has Peter Gabriel (very faintly) singing in it, which means that non-soundtrack fans might take more of a liking to it. But it's still very faint! The star of this show is, once again, the dank moods and the heavy washing of synthesizers. I can't imagine this sort of thing being much better than this...
Birdy's Flight A
This is the part of the movie where I hear “Not One of Us” start to play! Except I like this version better, because it doesn't seem so stiff! (I have to realize I'm probably alone in thinking that “Not One of Us” marked the worst moment in III...) It starts out moody and atmospheric, but very slowly, the intense groove starts to fade in. And it's as upbeat and maddening as ever.
Slow Marimbas A
Now, what would Peter Gabriel's early '80s albums have sounded like without the marimbas? ...Well, a lot less peppery, that's for sure. Here, those slow marimbas sound like raindrops pattering on the window. Those echoey and moody background synthesizers still sound like a freaky planetarium show. Even if you just listen to the synthesizers, they're playing notes that pique my attention. ...Gabriel makes moody soundtrack writing seem so easy, doesn't he? Midway through the synthesizers start to flare up and sounds like they're out of a misty jungle. ...Really cool.
The Heat A
The Heat = Rhythm of the Heat. This sounds more like the original than any of the others that came from his earlier songs. I'll tell you that I really miss listening to Gabriel's vocals, since they were so spot-on in the original... but he takes this opportunity to do some interesting things with it. The ghostly synthesizers sound like they're evil, or something, and that flare-up that happens in the middle is shiver-inducing. Moreover, the wild tribal drum playing is still featured at the end, and it's as wild as ever. ...Even if you listen to this as background music (as most people tend to listen to soundtrack albums), I think this'll be one moment that'll force you to pay attention.
Sketchpad With Trumpet and Voice A
You have to really like these synthesizers he picks. Not only is there a REALLY deep one throughout that sounds like a Buddhist chanting, but the are other ones that sound like a steam train whistling and others that sound like some creepy, soprano angel singing. Gabriel also lends his voice to this one, singing some very Middle-Eastern sounding, bendy notes. ...It's another atmospheric beauty. ...I know I'm giving all these songs the same score, but this is all so consistent! I'm waiting to get bored before lowering the score, but that's not happening...
Under Lock and Key A
Whoah! It's “Wallflower!” (Of all the old songs that he reprises for this album, I have to say I almost didn't recognize this one... which might be because the original sort of paled compared to other songs on that album.) But, this sounds beautiful! He brings back that twinkly keyboard that played “Family Snapshot” earlier in this album. It also sounds lonely, but perhaps just a tad more hopeful.
Powerhouse at the Foot of the Mountain A
This was a rewrite of “San Jacinto,” but only the end of it with those synthesizers that sounded like distorted wind chimes. ...So as long as he was reprising old songs, he's at least reprising parts that perhaps should have been expanded in the first place. It's dark, moody and thick. I'm at the last track of the album, and he never let that up. I'd say that's probably good reason to call this one of the most consistent soundtrack albums ever. And all of the textures are different from one another, so it wasn't boring, either. ...Well, for me anyway.
One of the greatest soundtrack albums of all time? ...Why not? It's not as good as Passion of the Christ for sure, but it's rare to run across a soundtrack album that's simultaneously dark and beautiful like this. Only Vangelis is this good at it, really.
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