Peter Gabriel broke into the mainstream with 1986’s So, after a period of determinedly, thrillingly weird moments — both with Genesis and without. Fans flocked to the album (and to the tour that followed) on the strength of hits like “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time,” lured into Gabriel’s orbit by some of the most inventive videomaking of that era.
“Mercy Street,” presented once more in this show marking the 25th anniversary of those concerts, was a darkly mysterious exception on So, and it’s lost none of that power on Back to Front: Live in London. Gabriel’s more aged, more oaken delivery only stirs new plumes of portent around a song that’s been enfolded in it from the first.
After all, “Mercy Street” uses as a theme the self-destructive existence and harrowingly raw confessions of Anne Sexton, right down to a title which connects back to her “45 Mercy Street” poem. As with the original late-1980s concert presentation, Gabriel is subjected to this ominous scan from a descending lighting rig. He lays alone, in the middle of the stage, but is of course never alone — in what could be another reference to the troubled Sexton, who was said to have bipolar disorder in the years leading up to her 1974 suicide.
“Mercy Street” hurtles along with a cadence by Brazilian Djalma Correa that’s been slowed to produce this dream-like polyrhythm, echoing the studio recording, even as long-time cohort Tony Levin unleashes a storm of funk-fingered gloom at the bass. Ghostly keyboards complete the setting, while “Mercy Street” reasserts itself as this canny synthesis of lit-rock, electronics and world music.
In this way, Gabriel accomplished everything he had been attempting to do musically since departing from Genesis a decade before — right in the middle of a smash-hit album. Or, in this case, a concert celebrating one.