I’ve been toying with the possibility of doing more reviews of the Peter Gabriel edition of Genesis and Peter Gabriel’s solo work ever since my review of Genesis’ Nursery Cryme two-and-a-half years ago. I opened that review with a passage that still holds true for me today:
Genesis is a band worthy of study because their work combines the best and worst tendencies of progressive rock. In the four albums featuring the “core” band (Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), you will hear both stunning masterpieces and some of the most pretentious nonsense imaginable. Peter Gabriel in particular will drive you mad, as he careens from brilliance to preposterousness on a single album, a pattern he would reliably reproduce throughout his solo career.
After a long period of dicking around, I finally had to conclude that Peter Gabriel triggers the Goldilocks side of my personality. Most of his work is “too” . . . something or another. Because I’m a girl who can never get enough heat, I would sum it up by saying none of his albums are too hot, some are too cold and some are way, way too 1980s.
Us is the album I find closest to “just right.” It’s not perfect, and there is one song in particular I find deeply offensive, but its obvious strengths outweigh the few glaring weaknesses.
What is unusual about Us is that it’s an emotionally honest work from a man who seemed to go out of his way to mask emotion through ornate poetry, clever bits of phrasing and obscure symbolism. The album features some of his most purely beautiful works and (lucky me) one of my favorite sexual posing songs ever, one I save for extra special erotic occasions. As he did for all his solo albums, Peter brought in an ever-expanding list of both big names and scarcely known but very talented musicians from all corners of the world to make contributions. Despite the challenges in managing a seeming cast of thousands, the end result reflects discipline and diversity, seamlessly integrating sounds and influences from Senegal, Ireland, Russia, Armenia, Scotland, India, Turkey, Kenya, Canada, France, the USA and the UK.
The ingenuity involved in mixing diverse sounds from diverse sources is on full display in the mesmerizing soundscape of “Come Talk to Me.” The opening synthesized drone playing the base chord pattern is quickly relegated to deep background with the appearance of Northumbrian smallpipes courtesy of classic piper Chris Ormston. Bagpipes of all kinds have been used for centuries to instill spirit in those facing a challenge—the boys marching off to war, the mourners at the gravesite or competitors gearing up for the games. Here the pipes are played over a contrasting rhythmic background of sabar drums courtesy of The Babacar Faye Drummers to call up the courage it takes to deal with the challenge of mending a broken relationship.
Peter Gabriel was thinking of his daughter and the rift between them that grew as the result of a marital breakup, but the song’s brilliance comes from his ability to universalize the agony that accompanies the disruption of a lifelong connection. Sinéad O’Connor’s harmonies in the chorus seem to reflect his hope that his daughter is equally keen to close the chasm. The complex and shifting moods of such a situation are captured in the diverse instruments and voices that ride over the underlying drone throughout the song, most notably the melancholic sound of the duduk and the energetic vocals of the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble. I don’t know how Peter Gabriel managed to successfully combine these contrasting textures from different cultures, but the result is an inspired arrangement that works beautifully with the lyrical content.
The poetic structure is intensely revealing, for in the first quatrain of the first two verses, we find the Peter Gabriel we’ve come to expect—the guy who writes like the English major yearning for a spot in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey when his dust returns to dust. In the second quatrain, his language becomes more concrete, more immediate, and by extension, more emotionally direct and impactful:
The wretched desert takes its form
The jackal proud and tight
In search of you I feel my way
Through the slowest heaving night
Whatever fear invents
I swear it makes no sense
I reach out through the border fence
Come down, come talk to me
After going through two more cycles where Gabriel feels the urge to feed his poetic beast prior to getting in touch with his emotions, he finally abandons the inner bard in an extended bridge for genuine, heartfelt interpersonal communication:
I can imagine the moment
Breaking out through the silence
All the things that we both might say
And the heart, it will not be denied
‘Til we’re both on the same damn side
All the barriers blown away
I said please talk to me
Won’t you please come talk to me?
Just like it used to be
Come on, come talk to me
The essence of the song is that simple cry for human communication and understanding, four monosyllabic words essential to human existence: come talk to me.
Peter gets even more personal in the confessional piece “Love to Be Loved.” The arrangement itself speaks volumes, combining a funk rhythm shimmering with gorgeous piano runs as he presents the symptoms, fading into a suspended string-laden section where drums and bass vanish as he digs deeper in an attempt to get at the root of the problem. The problem is hinted at in the first two choruses—the difference between wanting to be liked (accepted by society) and wanting to be loved (cherished for the true self). The challenge at hand is the timeless struggle captured in Gautama Buddha’s first two Noble Truths: the human condition is suffering; the suffering is caused by craving, desire and attachment:
This old familiar craving
I’ve been here before, this way of behaving
Don’t know who the hell I’m saving anymore
Let it pass let it go let it leave
From the deepest place I grieve
This time I believe
And I let go
Much to his credit and sense of humility, Gabriel’s dramatic monologue in the closing passage describes the discomfort of detaching oneself from those cravings and desires. He realizes that he is “losing such a central part of me,” then attempts to buck himself up by saying, “I can let go of it/You know I mean it/You know that I mean it.” That’s a clue to the listener that he doesn’t mean it, and finally he just says fuck it and opts out of the opportunity to achieve nirvana:
I recognize how much I’ve lost
But I cannot face the cost
Cause I love to be loved
Yes I love to be loved
I love to be loved
So do I, Peter, and so does pretty much everyone else in the world, whether they admit it or not.
The most purely beautiful song on the album is the second duet with Gabriel and O’Connor, “Blood of Eden.” The combination of duduk, violin and arpeggiated guitar creates a warm, tender and faintly melancholic foundation, and the relatively subdued voices of the vocalists help paint a soundscape of sacred ground. Though I’m anything but a Christian, I admire Peter Gabriel’s choice to use the symbolism of Adam and Eve as opposed to the dynamic of yin and yang. While both symbols represent the active-masculine/receptive-feminine dualism at the heart of the universe, yin and yang are abstract concepts while Adam and Eve represent flesh and blood. This is a sensual song celebrating the physical union of opposites, and when such a union involves genuine love and caring for the other, it takes on a spirituality of its own.
In this context, Peter seems to want to use the sexual act to heal a souring relationship, an all-too-common attempt to recapture that beautiful feeling of oneness—an attempt that usually causes both parties to go deeper into mourning over what has been lost. The song is structured in uneven verses (3-2-2-3, 3-2-2-2, 3-2), reflecting awkward communication and partial understanding. In the longer first verse, he admits all is not right within, contrasting his pursuit of deeper understanding with the crass materialism that surrounds him—almost wishing he could feel as secure as the normals do with their precious trifles:
I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start
And the darkness still has work to do
The knotted chord’s untying
The heated and the holy
Oh they’re sitting there on high
So secure with everything they’re buying
In the second verse he defines his inadequacy in material terms (“I cannot get insurance anymore/They don’t take credit, only gold”), and admits how in his confused state he is incapable of accurate perception or understanding, unsure whether his partner is his destroyer or his savior:
Is that a dagger or a crucifix I see
You hold so tightly in your hand
And all the while the distance grows between you and me
I do not understand
As in “Love to Be Loved,” he breaks from verse structure to describe the attempt at physical reunion, crying out as the “moment of bliss” arrives. He then returns to the verse to compare his state to those consumed by consumerism:
I can hear the distant thunder
Of a million unheard souls
Of a million unheard souls
Watch each one reach for creature comfort
For the filling of their holes
The chorus appears between each of the verses, but truly comes to fruition in the extended fade, where the mingling of duduk and violin reach an evocative peak expressing infinite beauty and infinite sadness:
In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man
I feel the man in the woman and the woman in the man
In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man
I feel the man in the woman and the woman in the man
In the blood of Eden we have done everything we can
In the blood of Eden, so we end as we began
With the man in the woman and the woman in the man
It was all for the union, oh the union of the woman, the woman and the man
“Blood of Eden” is an immersive experience, a song both enchanting and achingly sad, one that touches me at the core of my soul.
Then again, it’s also a lot of fun to feel the temporal but thrilling joy of carnal desire, and “Steam” does that for me every fucking time. People who have dismissed the song as “Sledgehammer II” are either idiots or idiots with no concept of eroticism, but idiots all the same. “Sledgehammer” was Peter Gabriel’s tribute to soul music, a song marked by slick production and dumb lyrics lacking any hint of adult sexuality. “Steam” is about the heat and nothing but the heat because sometimes all that fucking matters is the heat.
“Steam” is certainly available for my fuck playlists, but I save it for those nights when I’m feeling it in my tendons, nerves and nether regions—when my inner thighs glisten with anticipatory wetness as I get ready for the scene—when pictures of realized and unrealized fantasies stream through my brain—when my nipples and clitoris turn rock hard, ready to explode and explode again before I’ve even made contact with my partner—when I know it’s going to take hours to release all the tension coursing through every fiber of my being and I look forward to savoring every fucking minute—and when I make my entrance in full leather and riding crop with tits and crotch exposed but agonizingly out of reach, you’d better fucking . . .
I’ll leave the six minutes of posing to stutter-stop guitar, pounding drums and the seriously hot Gabriel-Lanois horn arrangement to your naughty imaginations.
“Only Us” is post-orgasmic, with Tony Levin’s dominant bass guitar maintaining the strongest connection to the rhythms and impulses of steamier moments. After the intensity of the first four tracks, the piece feels more like an intermission than a thematic extension, though the lyrics do present the theme of finding solace from “the great escape” of daily life in the arms of another (to be explored in more depth in the album closer). Gabriel also follows George Harrison’s lead in paraphrasing from the Tao Te Ching, reaffirming the notion that “the further on I go, the less I know,” linking that wisdom to the spirituality of intimate physical contact.
Next up is Gabriel’s attempt at creating a late 20th-century spiritual, “Washing of the Water,” but the tropes he uses (the river, the water as a symbol of purification) are as ancient as ancient gets. The lyrics repeat the theme of solace in sexuality (“Let your waters reach me, like she reached me tonight”) and the psychological flaws that lead us to fear genuine human connection. Some listeners might find the translation of these themes through the lens of spiritual music more accessible, and there’s no doubt that the pain Gabriel describes is genuinely felt.
Peter Gabriel being Peter Gabriel, he had to spend some time exploring the dark side of human nature, and I suppose you could say he does this successfully in “Digging in the Dirt,” where he attempts to empathize with a psychopath wallowing in the experience of severe toxic masculinity. According to Songfacts, “This song evolved out of a project where Gabriel studied inmates on death row to find out what made them kill.” What Gabriel learned is this: “When you have self-knowledge, you don’t fall into the same behavioral traps. One of the keys is—take responsibility. Blaming anyone else, especially in relationships, is a futile activity and not going to move you forward.”
Uh-uh. You know what, Peter? I don’t give a shit about your pop psychologizing, and I wish you would have given a whole lot more attention to the trauma suffered by the victims of these poor boys rather than wasting your time trying to understand them.
Shit. Here comes my #metoo moment.
When I was twenty-three, I was abducted at knifepoint by such a man, who forced me into his car and drove me to a relatively isolated spot on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay one summer night. I don’t want to go into the details, but I took advantage of the fact that the asshole’s brains were in his dick and managed to escape with relatively minor physical injuries. The psychological trauma of the event was far more serious, aggravated by the cynicism of the men on the police force who dismissed my tale as another date gone sour. Like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted and eventually managed to convince the district attorney’s office to pursue the case. This poor, poor boy was sentenced to a few years in jail where he probably spent his time learning from the pros how to become a more successful rapist and murderer.
Excuse the fuck out of me for not feeling a single bit of empathy for that sick fuck.
I find “Digging in the Dirt” a disgusting experience, a completely worthless effort by an entitled entertainer who has the financial means to piss away his money exploring the dark layers of his persona through psychotherapy while ignoring the psychological devastation these deviants leave in their wake. To add insult to injury, Gabriel admitted to The Daily Mirror that the song “was probably the hardest one to do on the album because it was written around a groove and it just didn’t make sense at first. I was really missing the bass and drums.”
Missing the bass and drums? That qualifies as a difficulty? Any thought to the difficulties faced by the families who will never recover from the murder of a family member? Or the difficulties of the women who feel the need to leave the lights on when they go to bed at night? Or the women who have heard “This time you’ve gone too far” so often that they instinctively curl up into a ball to minimize the impact of the beating they’re about to take? Fuck you and your definition of “hard.”
I’m not surprised that “Digging in the Dirt” went to the top of the charts in one and only one country, the toxically masculine United States of America. Personal feelings aside, the song sticks out like a deformed penis in the context of an album celebrating love, union and the desire for close contact. My Us playlist excludes this piece of shit, and listening to it three times in the process of writing this review was an experience I never want to repeat.
Let’s move on to The Rothko Chapel in hot, humid, and oily Houston, Texas, the source of inspiration for “Fourteen Black Paintings.” This meditation begins tenderly with Levon Minassian’s duduk solo, where he produces a marvelous tone on this ancient double reed instrument, mingling spirituality with earthiness. The sparseness gives way to an electronic ensemble heavy on bass tones designed to express in musical terms the feeling evoked in Gabriel’s visit to the chapel. The background also serves as a platform for Gabriel’s model of progressive change:
From the pain come the dream
From the dream come the vision
From the vision come the people
From the people come the power
From this power come the change
With the world tilting towards authoritarianism today, this seems terribly naïve, but perhaps hope will spring again someday. As a mood piece, though, “Fourteen Black Paintings” is very effective.
“Kiss That Frog” was surprisingly released as a single, even though it’s a fundamentally dumb song that attempts to soften its cuteness with nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to oral sex. The single went nowhere, just like the song. The Peter Gabriel who wrote this turkey was the Peter Gabriel who wanted to be liked, and I hope its chart failure taught him a valuable lesson.
The album closes with “Secret World,” where Gabriel finally returns to the central theme of love as a prerequisite to true happiness. Here he also echoes a theme that appears frequently in rock music throughout the years, the idea of a loving relationship serving as a refuge from an often hostile society that denies both love and individuality. Jack Bruce touched on it in “I Feel Free,” PJ Harvey in “One Line,” The Bee Gees in “Holiday,” and Ray Davies in “Waterloo Sunset,” to name a few. Gabriel’s take on the refuge theme is quite different, however, as he points out that the secret world of refuge can also become a claustrophobic environment if the lovers fail to tend to the essentials of trust and open communication by holding secrets within the confines of the secret world. He also moves away from the symbolism of Adam and Eve as the ultimate form of union, likening a collapsing relationship to the period after the fall:
In this house of make believe
Divided in two, like Adam and Eve
You put out and I receive
Down by the railway siding
In our secret world, we were colliding
In all the places we were hiding love
What was it we were thinking of?
The arrangement features a multitude of instruments that have no business communing with one another, but the melding of Mexican pan flute, dobro, cello, guitar and various products of programming never sounds crowded, thanks in large part to carefully attenuated dynamics. When I’ve communed with fellow musicians who like to do their own thing through software, I encourage them to listen to Us as a sterling example of superb modern musical arrangement.
Often brilliant and occasionally oblivious, Us remains my favorite Peter Gabriel album with my favorite Peter Gabriel song (“Blood of Eden”). I have to admit that I like “Moribund the Burgermeister” almost as much, which reveals one of two things: a.) my range of musical taste is completely bizarre, or b.) Peter Gabriel is a remarkably talented individual who refuses to be limited to a specific playing field. Although I often find myself frustrated with some of his tendencies and choices, I have to give him credit for his lifelong willingness to push the boundaries of what’s possible in music.