First of all, the listener should know that Peter Gabriel's Big Blue Ball isn't the Next Peter Gabriel Album his fans have been waiting for. The album is the result of a series of annual musicians' festivals that Gabriel's Real World Studios threw in the early 1990s. During these "Recording Weeks" (as they were named), he and a whole bunch his talented friends got together at his studio to have fun, party, play music, and record whatever came out. The result of this was a musical motherlode that Gabriel spent over ten years editing and producing, a bit at a time, until finally the results see the light of day in Big Blue Ball. Because of this, the album is more of a sampler of the different kinds of music produced at Real World Studios, rather than a carefully-planned concept album. In addition to a trio of his own pieces ("Whole Thing", "Burn You Up Burn You Down," "Exit Through You"), we get to hear the Real World musicians putting their own musical works together, with Gabriel's production providing the glue that binds them all together. And fortunately for us all, what could have been a mish-mash of musical mush becomes instead a sampler of the best moments from Real World Studios. If you're looking for the Next Peter Gabriel Album, you're likely to be disappointed. But if you've enjoyed the Real World compilation albums such as Plus From Us or the Real World Sampler promo CD released back in 1999, then Big Blue Ball is a delightful hodge-podge of ambient world music fusion that follows in the footsteps of those previous works.
When listening to music in a foreign language, I find the best way to enjoy it is to sit back and wait for a likeable beat…which is why I was hooked immediately on "Habibe," the second track; the traditional Middle Eastern instruments used here made me want to go and listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan again. On the other hand, there's "Forest," an ambient-techno track that would fit perfectly at home on any Afro Celt Sound System album (which I love, especially their first three discs), and in between are the Celt-influenced "altus silva" and "Everything Comes Through You." Something about Papa Wemba's vocals doesn’t seem to appeal to me, and I tend to skip over "Shadow" and "Jijy" as a result; but your ear for music is probably different from mine, and you may disagree on this. That's your prerogative, and I'm pleased that there are many great moments on Big Blue Ball that I can listen to over and over.
Even though Gabriel's' Us was fresh and new when these "Recording Weeks" took place, his own trip of songs here sound closer to Up than Us; but there's a freshness to them that is very enjoyable, a feeling that was often buried in the over-production of several tracks on Up. I'm immediately hooked on "Exit Through You," and his (slight) remix of "Burn You Up Burn You Down" is an improvement over the first version of the song that popped up around the time of Up. Gabriel took nearly fifteen years to finish editing and producing Big Blue Ball, but he certainly makes the album worth the wait. It's a burst of energy from Gabriel and his friends that makes me hope – once again – that the Next Peter Gabriel Album appears soon, and that it recalls the emotional and mysterious musical soundscapes of Peter Gabriel in his prime.