The New Age Grammy enters the 90s. Peter Gabriel is a worthy winner. But a new age hyperstar is waiting in the wings…
Peter Gabriel’s Passion is a landmark album. It was the first album ever released on his Real World label. That means it was the first CD to have that lovely earthy rainbow spine. It was the moment WOMAD became an institution, rather than a financial disaster that could only be rescued by the power of prog. And it was very likely the first time many in the west were exposed to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, and Baaba Maal.
It also marked the first time the Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was won by a superstar – and I don’t mean Jesus Christ.
Peter Gabriel isn’t cool now, and he wasn’t cool then. He was and is the exact opposite of cool, and that’s what makes him so wonderful. But though he wasn’t cool in 1989, he was certainly respected. This was three years after So, which went triple platinum in the UK and five times platinum in the US. It was the same year In Your Eyes achieved immortality when it was blasted from a stereo held aloft by John Cusack in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. And the album in question was the soundtrack to a Scorsese film about Jesus.
No question about it, Passion was an Important Album by An Artist of Note. And it won the New Age Grammy! In previous years, the award went to an eccentric harpist, a jazz veteran and a “chamber jazz” band. In 1990, it was won by an artist everyone knew, and millions loved. Did this legitamise the award, and the genre? Is this the year new age went mainstream?
If the creation of this award was a year zero for new age music, then 1990 was the year the genre came of age. If the term “new age” ever meant anything other than candles, dolphins, crystals and incense, after 1990 it could never mean anything else.
But was the album that forever cemented the idea of new age music any good? Let’s find out!
So Passion is ostensibly the soundtrack to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s been a while since I saw that film, so I can’t really recall what this music sounds like in context. But really, it appears to be An Official Soundtrack In Name Only (AOSINO). Peter continued to work on this music long after scoring the film, and eventually decided to release it not as a soundtrack album, but as An Album In Its Own Right (AAIIOR).
The album was originally released under the name Passion, with no mention of the Scorsese film. It was only with the 2002 reissue that they added the Music for The Last Temptation of Christ subtitle. And in the liner notes to that reissue, Peter attributes the renaming to “legal barriers”.
This is important to mention, because it suggests that Peter didn’t really expect us to think of Jesus and his friends when listening to this music. Granted, some of the song titles are Biblical. However, I don’t think this is innately Christian music. It’s spiritual, certainly, but it’s not worship music. It’s not focused on a single culture, or a single belief system. It’s universal, pluralistic, worldly, and human. In short, it’s very new age.
Despite being a devotee of Saint Peter, I hadn’t heard this album before I started this new age odyssey. I’d avoided listening because I thought it would be a sober reflection on the last few days of Jesus’s life; a dour meditation on concepts like faith and sacrifice. It really isn’t.
Peter may have composed these songs, but he takes a back seat in the performances. Mostly, he hangs around in the background playing ominous drones on his keyboards. These drones act as the glue that holds together a series of exuberant collaborations between an absurdly talented roster of musicians from around the world.
I’ve already mentioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, and Baaba Maal. Lakshminarayana Shankar’s here too. And Bill Cobham! And Jon Hassell! And David Rhodes! And Manu Katché! And Kudsi Ergüner! And Nathan Harrell East! And the best thing is, every performance is literally outstanding. Nothing is subsumed in the murk. Everyone is given their chance to shine. This could have been a mess. And yet, largely thanks to Peter’s keyboard drones, there’s a remarkable consistency from track to track.
It’s a 70 minute double album. But honestly, there’s never a dull moment. In fact, there’s a few points where I wish it were considerably longer.
Gethsemane is sadly not a powerhouse rendition of the Jesus Christ Superstar showstopper. It’s an unnerving minimal piece for flute and voice that sounds like a choir of exhausted Clangers. It’s less than 90 seconds long, but I could easily imagine some experimental musician or other stretching it to thrilling yet terrifying extremes.
Then there are the two ambient tracks that act as the album’s centrepiece – Zaar and Open. Slow heartbeat drums, sublime strings, hypnotic rhythms – I could happily listen to 14+ minute versions of either. Yet both pass by in a flash. The whole album is heaving with great ideas. But there’s also an impressive amount of restraint.
And it’s not all disconcerting noise and searing desert ambience either. Towards the end of the album, just when you think you’ve heard everything these guys have to offer, there’s a sudden outbreak of eco trance. Disturbed layers tabla, surdo and percussion loops over L. Shankar’s double violin. It could be Coldcut, or The Orb, but it’s almost entirely played live. It’s like organic, acoustic techno. And it’s brilliant.
Then there’s the title track, Passion. The sad drones at the start remind me of the first half of Klaus Schulze’s Mindphaser, which is about as hopeless and desolate as analogue synth music can be. But then it transforms into something else entirely. First there’s Jon Hassell’s unmistakable treated trumpet tones, at once totally unearthly yet deeply human. Then, without warning, comes the intense Qawwali voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Some say his was the single greatest voice ever recorded. Hearing his performance on Passion, I can understand why. It soars and smoulders with the music, crackling with vitality, humanity, pain, sorrow, and PASSION. It’s devastating. A godlike masterpiece.
As a song, It Is Accomplished sounds like it wandered into the recording session by mistake. Whereas everything else on Passion could be the living and breathing music of the ages, this is a sudden ray of late 80s optimism. Keening guitar! Rolling drums! Synths like chiming bells! It’s one of the most uplifting songs in Peter’s entire repertoire, which is really saying something.
It’s a smashing song. It just sounds a tad underwhelming after the wonders that came before. Well. How do you follow perfection? Maybe they should have closed the album with the title track. But instead, having stared god in the eye, the group decide to take things back down to Earth. Fair enough.
The band Peter assembled for Passion is effectively a WOMAD supergroup. The music can be intense. It’s often challenging. But it has such an energy and warmth about it. You get the sense that these talented musicians had more ideas than they knew what to do with. At times it’s infectiously joyous. It’s like the purest manifestation of the WOMAD ethos:
To be embracing but non-definitive, inspiring and outward looking; and more than anything, enthusiastic about a world that has no boundaries in its ability to communicate through music and movement.
There we go. You know what I said about 1990 being the year new age music came of age? I think I’ll struggle to find a better explanation of what makes new age music what it is. That’s the essence of it, right there: Beyond all that’s cool and fashionable, new age music never forgets that there’s a whole world out there, and a whole world in here too.
Peter would never get another nomination for the New Age Grammy. But in 2009, Down to Earth, from the Wall-E soundtrack, won the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. Right on, Peter. Best song he ever wrote. Or that anyone ever wrote, for that matter.
Other Nominations for the 1990 Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording
You knew this was coming.
Yes, this song needs no introduction. It’s the one new age song that everyone knows – even if they only know the chorus.
I usually refrain from writing in universals. But seriously, everyone knows this song, yes?
Interestingly, it’s the first song we’ve encountered in this odyssey with a fixed verse/chorus structure and clearly discernible vocals. That effectively means that it’s the first song we’ve encountered that’s explicitly about something. So far we’ve had nothing but visionary instrumentals with colourful titles. They may have been written to evoke some abstract feeling or concept, but they were all very much open to interpretation. Any vocals used were largely wordless and included purely for expression.
Orinoco Flow, though. That’s a clear and unambiguous song. And what a song! Yet again, it feels like 1990 was a turning point for new age music.
Like all ubiquitous songs, you’re probably so familiar with this one that it’s been years since you last actually listened to it. Now’s the time, pal. Turn it up as loud as you can go. Let the pizzicato strings shake the cobwebs from your mind, and the angel dream vocals vibrate your soul. Sail away, friend. Sail away.
Beyond Peter and Enya, we have a trio of familiar faces. First is Paul Winter, who got a nomination for his song Icarus. This song first appeared in 1972 on the album of the same name. It was included on Wolf Eyes, a career retrospective Paul put out in 1989. It feels a bit cheap to nominate a song from a greatest hits collection. But here we are.
The song’s yet another deeply moving slice of uplifting ambient jazz from Mr. Winter. Unlike the doomed inventor’s sun from whom the song takes its name, this one never flies too close to the sun. It happily floats and soars for its duration, with not a hint of melting wax to be heard anywhere.
This was Paul’s third nomination for the New Age Grammy. He was first nominated for his album Canyon, which became one of my all-time favourites halfway through my first listen. It’s spellbinding. He then got a nomination for Down in Belgorod, a song he recorded with the Dimitri Pokrovsky singers. Again, spellbinding. His playing is witchcraft. His notes fly through time and space to melt away whatever malaise may be languishing in my brain.
It feels like everything I hear by him immediately becomes indispensable. This song and album has shades of the Canterbury scene – all warm piano chords, sad yet soulful compositions, and vocals that sound exactly like Robert Wyatt. If I get anything out of this new age odyssey, it’s a new friend for life in Paul Winter.
Three nominations so far and no win. But his time will come. Just you wait.
Dancing With The Lion is another baffling suite of weird adventure music by the mad harpist Andreas Vollenweider. You’ll remember that he won the inaugural New Age Grammy for his Down to the Moon album. That was a deliriously odd album. But it’s got nothing on this one.
Once again, we get a gloopy orchestra of synth strings, treated harp , reeds and flutes. And once again, we get that feeling of going on a grand adventure into the heart of someplace exotic and drenched in neon magic. But this time, there are guitar solos! And not just any guitar solos. They’re the sort of guitar solos that are played by shirtless men with long hair on top of very tall buildings, in thunder storms.
For a small taster of just how bizarre this album gets, give Still Life a listen. It lays wonderful chiming bells and a seductive, open-shirted sax performance over a slow beat. You could sell Pepsi to this. Or a holiday in a pink hotel surrounded by a golf course, which is itself surrounded by a desert. But then he adds an opera singer, and suddenly this doesn’t sound like anyone or anything else that’s ever existed. Andreas just doesn’t care, does he? Anything goes. It’s wonderful.
Finally, there’s Tibet by Mark Isham. It’s another swing and a miss for Windham Hill! Yet again, they had a horse in the race and went home disappointed. Someday their prince will come. But not for some years yet.
If it were going against anything other than Peter Gabriel’s Passion, I’d say that Mark was robbed of the 1990 New Age Grammy. This is a profoundly affecting suite of ambient jazz in five parts. Tibet II appears to be the most famous section (in that it’s appeared on a number of compilations). But for me it gets no better than the closing Tibet V, which I’ve embedded above.
Earlier I said that certain ambient tracks from Passion could have been much longer. Well, this is what happens when you give such inspired arrangements the space to grow and breathe. 14 minutes long and it’s still not long enough for me. It’s simply astounding. Heavenly. Tired yet hopeful. Just like me. I’m going to bed.
NEXT TIME ON NAGCHAMPA – The return of Mark Isham! And Paul Winter!