What a difference a band makes.
The Clovers were the hired hands supporting Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True, hitting the notes and beats but not adding much in the way of excitement. Elvis Costello carried that record pretty much all by his little old lonesome, and that’s a pretty heavy burden for any performer. What he needed for his next record was a real band with high quality, multi-dimensional musicians who could deliver the rock ‘n’ roll goods and had the ability to respond to Costello’s lyrical displays with playfulness of their own.
Enter The Attractions.
There are two things that stand out for me when I listen to This Year’s Model. First, Elvis Costello sounds more confident and relaxed in his vocal delivery because he doesn’t have to compensate for the comparative lack of energy and innovation from the band. He can relax and ride the wave, knowing that the band has his back and then some.
The second thing is . . . I can’t take my ears off that drummer.
Can you say that? Is that a legitimate colloquialism in the English language? Well, fuck if I care, it’s the truth—I cannot take my ears off Pete Thomas. Because he may not have the cachet of Starr, Moon, Bonham or Bevan, you might think my passion for his stick-and-foot work might just be one of this crazy broad’s personal quirks. Au contraire! I am not alone in my lofty opinion! Tom Waits called Pete Thomas “one of the best rock drummers alive.”
Damn straight, Tom, damn straight.
The other two Attractions were pretty darned good, too. Bruce Thomas (no relation) proved to be a solid bassist with melodic flair, and though he and Elvis would eventually do battle with one another in an on-again off-again feud, at this early stage there was none of that silliness in play. Steve Nieve is an exceptionally talented keyboardist and composer, and one of the few organists I can listen to with unbridled pleasure.
Things kick off with a character suffering from that dire combination of bruised ego, denial and desire for petty revenge. Well, shit, no wonder he gets “No Action!” He spends the first verse lying to himself and to the woman whose life he garnishes with near-prank phone calls:
I don’t wanna kiss you
I don’t wanna touch
I don’t wanna see you
‘Cause I don’t miss you that much
I’m not a telephone junkie
I told you that we were just good friends
But when I hold you like I hold
That Bakelite in my hands
There’s no action (3)
Ooh–I hope he’s not whipping his skippy with his other hand. Ah, apparently not—he’s too busy displaying his moxie:
And the things in my head
Start hurtin’ my mind
And I think about the way things used to be
Knowing you with him is driving me crazy
Sometimes I phone you when I know you’re not lonely
But I always disconnect it in time
Elvis plays the role of gutless wonder to perfection, and the addition of harmony and call-and-response from Elvis and the boys in the band adds an exciting dimension to the overall sound.
I realized just how ab-fab Pete Thomas is the first time I heard “This Year’s Girl.” He opens the song establishing the base pattern, and what you notice most of all is how precise he is in terms of the force applied to each part of the kit—toms, bass, snare, high hat. His rock-solid performance during the intro allows gives each of the other members a chance to shine in turn, with Elvis getting his licks in first, Bruce filling in the bottom and Steve delivering the dominant figure on the keyboards. I love the way this tiny overture all comes together at the end, with Bruce cueing the close with a pair of declining runs, Steve holding the chord on the organ, Pete cooling off with soft high-hat beats then POW-POW-pa-PA-POW! Take it away, Elvis!
See her picture in a thousand places ’cause she’s this year’s girl
You think you all own little pieces of this year’s girl
Forget your fancy manners
Forget your English grammar
‘Cause you don’t really give a damn about this year’s girl
No, you really don’t. This year’s girl, next year’s girl—just another objectified piece of ass you can own by plunking down the dough for the magazine. The brilliance of the song comes through in the second verse and bridge, where Costello exposes the strange fantasy-driven “relationship” between viewer and object. The viewer wants this year’s girl to have some class in order to raise his status (see “trophy wife”) but when the lights go out he wants to break that bitch and shove his member down her throat. Although the scenario is completely unreal, the feelings feel real to the viewer; meanwhile, the girl in question wishes she’d been born ugly so she might have a shot at a real life, knowing that beauty fades as surely as a camellia in hot sun:
Still you’re hoping that she’s well-spoken ’cause she’s this year’s girl
You want her broken with her mouth wide open ’cause she’s this year’s girl
Never knowing it’s a real attraction
All these promises of satisfaction
While she’s being bored to distraction being this year’s girl
Time’s running out, she’s not happy with the cost
There’d be no doubt, only she’s forgotten much more than she’s lost
Costello opines that these strange connections between man and fantasy likely have their origins in male insecurity resulting from superficial “manliness” and the curse of erectile dysfunction (“Those body-building prizes/Those bedroom alibis”). The truth is that absurd expectations for both genders have poisoned the well since . . . well, since forever. The line quoted above appears in the closing verse, and I have to confess that I get so focused on what Pete is doing—particularly the sudden break from the pattern, a brief caesura and then varied lengths of pow-pow-pow on the toms—that it takes a superhuman effort to not tune out Elvis Costello’s lead vocal. And it’s one of his best! A perfect expression of justifiably righteous disdain!
Fortunately, “The Beat” is dominated by Costello’s vocal and Nieve’s organ, so I can concentrate on musical design and lyrics. The alternation between major and minor keys in verse and chorus is interesting, but isn’t accompanied by an obvious lyrical shift from “happy” to “sad.” As for the storyline, I’ve read various theories ranging from Oedipus complex to Onanism to garden-variety sexual inadequacy on the part of an awkward, un-cute boy (allegedly Costello himself). I’d be careful interpreting Costello’s lyrics as autobiographical, but the awkward boy theme is one of his sweet spots and likely has its origins in personal experience. I read the song as a stew of teenage/early-twenties insecurities in relation to sexual matters—a kitchen-sink exposé of young male neuroses. Musically, the song isn’t all that interesting, and “The Beat” is certainly not one of my faves.
“Pump It Up” certainly is, a perennial entry on my fuck playlists because when you’re horny you couldn’t care less about Costello’s anti-hedonistic lyrics as long as that thumping combination of drums and bass shakes every nerve “down in the pleasure center, hell-bent or heaven-sent.”
Now, Costello must have known that the music to this song is as sexy as fuck, so “anti-hedonistic” is a somewhat misleading label. He wrote the song on a fire escape in Newcastle while touring, feeling that his bandmates were more focused on the coke and the groupies than the music and the meaning. It seems to me that he was railing against artificial or dishonest means of pumping up the hormonal levels—drugs, image, presentation, projected identity. The chorus reads “Pump it up when you don’t really need it,” calling out the epidemic of human fragility that tricks us into believing we need drugs, a sexy dress, an attitude or being in with the in-crowd to give us confidence in our relations with others.
This Year’s Model continues the pattern of My Aim Is True in its faithfulness to the style of rock produced between 1958 and 1963. However, despite bearing a superficial resemblance to the songs of the early 60’s girl groups (I’m thinking Rosie and the Originals here), “Little Triggers” features chordal and rhythmic changes that violate the formula, and that kind of a thing was a no-go during that heavily conformist period. The triggers in question have to do with the ambiguous mating signals transmitted by a woman who hasn’t figured out that “I want/I don’t want to fuck” is the only sensible way to go. This broad triggers a rise in testosterone through a combination of sarcastic laughter, tongue teasing and temporary access to her body, only to force poor Elvis into an icy shower. It’s obvious that both parties need to grow up and get real. I adore Steve Nieve’s piano on this piece, executing the arpeggio usually assigned to guitar with professional eloquence.
If you’re the kind of person who would look forward to hearing The Stones’ “The Last Time: The Sequel,” you’ll love “You Belong to Me,” especially the opening riff and the verses where you can easily sing “I told you once and I told you twice” in place of Costello’s lyrics. Stones fans will also pick up on the use of the phrase “under his thumb” later in the song, and the loonier of the lot may be tempted to conjure up a conspiracy theory that Mick Jagger secretly left the Stones in a desperate attempt to save his marriage to Bianca, had major plastic surgery and turned himself into the younger, more self-effacing Elvis Costello.
Fuhgeddabout it. Elvis Costello has always been honest about borrowing bits, pieces and maybe a bit more from rock songs through the ages. The thing about “You Belong To Me” and most Costello compositions is that the lyrics tend to be much more interesting than the original, just as Shakespeare is a lot more fun to read than Plutarch. Here he expresses frustration with young ladies who take pride in being “owned” by this or that cute boy, imbuing the relationship with importance enhanced by secrecy, even if it means a trip to the doctor to take care of a little problem growing in the womb. Musically the song feels a bit choppy, and the organ a bit overwhelming, but I do find myself singing along to either Costello or Mick.
“Hand in Hand” breaks from early rock patterns with a vocal intro more than a little reminiscent of mid-period Beatles, especially the backward vocal on “Rain.” That intro leads to a song about man and woman locked in a power struggle arguing about who’s the toughest of them all. Sorry, but this one doesn’t really click for me.
“(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” is also more about the music than the lyrics. Pete Thomas wanted to make his mark with an opening intro comparable to “Watching the Detectives,” and boy, did he ever, with a dazzling syncopated performance that paves the way for the herky-jerky rhythmic feel of the song. Much of that rhythmic feel is driven by the contrasting rhythms from Bruce Thomas on bass, which according to Costello, saved the song from becoming a “just a poor relation to ‘All of the Day (and All of the Night)’, ‘I Can’t Explain’ or even ‘Clash City Rockers.'” The result bears only a faint resemblance to those classics, and though the lyrics are little more than a brief vignette of the phony flash that marked the Chelsea of that era, I will always cherish the line, “They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie.”
“Lip Service” is an absolutely delightful rocker marked by jangly guitar strums, heartfelt harmonies and a terribly exciting melodic bass line from Bruce Thomas that gives me the shivers, especially when he goes high on the fretboard during the chorus. I would love to hear a bass-only recording of this piece, as the combination of his rhythmic drive in the verses and the fabulous counterpoint melodies serve as a master class in how to own that instrument. “Lip Service” is an unusually uplifting piece from Costello from a musical perspective, but fear not, his disdain of interpersonal bullshit is fully expressed in the brief set of lyrics. It’s followed by “Living by Paradise,” a tune that mixes a touch of the Caribbean with classic rock in an arrangement that feels a little too busy and disjointed.
Pete gets another shot at a memorable intro in the frantic world of “Lipstick Vogue,” rolling those toms and whacking that snare like there’s no tomorrow. The intro establishes the starting point for the double-time rhythm that follows, which turns out to be a passageway to one of the more ambitious arrangements on the album. The musicianship on this piece is breathtaking; in addition to Pete’s stunning energy, Bruce continues to zip around the fretboard and Steve does yeoman’s work on multiple keyboards. The piece has a true cinematic feel, with moods shifting from tension-filled to flat-out eerie, dynamics flipping from loud bash to carefully attenuated anticipation, like the classic set-ups in horror films. The structure of the extended instrumental middle, moving from full band madness to a passage featuring full intensity drums and organ sustain on comparatively low volume is absolutely killer, and the tension created is so palpable that when Elvis re-enters with his vocal, you don’t know whether to feel relief or hold on to your suspicions a little while longer. Though the band has already shown signs that they’re more than your average rockers, “Lipstick Vogue” tells you that these guys have the capacity to cover a wide range of musical ground.
“Night Rally” was omitted from some of the U. S. releases for a variety of reasons, one being that the subject matter was uniquely British. Morgan Troper of Pop Matters accepted that decision, but I think Troper might want to revisit some of the comments entered into the record, given recent developments in human history:
The lyrics’ significance are sort of confined to their time, as Costello allegedly wrote the song in response to a sudden abundance of neo-Nazi rallies around London in the late 1970s. The refrain (“You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny / Wait until they’ve got you running to the night rally”) is a warning to the susceptible masses not to underestimate the viral ideology.
Well, I never thought Charlottesville could happen just like I never thought the American people were dumb enough to put such a painfully obvious racist and con man in the White House. I agree with Troper that the music isn’t much, a choppy version of girl group and who-knows-what-else, but the lyrics have tragically proven their value over time.
“Radio Radio” was tacked onto the album following its success as a single, delivering a final burst of rock ‘n’ roll energy before we say good night. What I love right off the bat is how it sounds like a classic radio hit with that bright carnival organ, kind of like Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” with a hundred times the power, thanks to the rollicking rhythms from Pete and Bruce. On cue, the band tones it down to give Elvis plenty of space to lay down the love part of his love-hate affair with the medium:
I was tuning in the shine on the late night dial
Doing anything my radio advised
With every one of those late night stations
Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes
These first four lines are from the song’s source, an early Costello composition called “Radio Soul.” A few years ago he told an audience, “Before I got into show business, I thought radio was great. So I wrote a song about celebrating it—the thrill of listening to it late at night. This was my imaginary song about radio before I found out how foul and twisted it was.” The ironic twist is that the audience in question consisted of the stock analysts and industry bigwigs attending the launch of Apple Radio. Don’t interpret the irony as evidence that Elvis Costello is a hypocrite—he’s just another artist in long line of artists who perceive a fundamental conflict between artistic and commercial considerations and can’t find a way to square the circle. This is a conflict of long historical standing; the only difference is that the patrons aren’t the landed gentry of the Renaissance, but large corporations focused on P&L.
It is said that the updated version of the song you hear on the album was triggered by the BBC’s banning of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” so the first two lines of the chorus form a double entendre: “Radio is a sound salvation/Radio is cleaning up the nation.” Costello can sing those lines with sincerity, having experienced the salvation of great music of pirate radio, but he is also fully aware that the BBC and other censors believe they’re doing just that by “curating content.” Elvis finds himself in quite a quandary, forced to supply the bastards with hits if he wants to be heard and hating himself for giving the man what he wants. He tries to buck himself up with a revenge fantasy he knows will never come to fruition:
I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they’d never seen me
What makes the song special for me is the third verse, where Costello displays remarkable prescience concerning the impact of controlled media on the populace, particularly its power to induce conformance, apathy and a feeling that all is well in normal-land even when it’s not:
Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up; they don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel
Part of the reason I broke contact with all things American had to do with the outrage I felt at the anesthezation-normalization of Trump by most of the major news organizations, constantly asking Trump Troopers to appear on shows or in print without challenging the obvious falsehoods and outrageous claims spewing from their mouths. The same is true of pop music today—it’s feel-good formulaic crap designed to help you whistle your way through another pleasant day of existential boredom and forget about a world falling to pieces all around you.
The enthusiastic performance you hear from all band members in the repetition of “radio, radio” in the fade probably reflects the fact that they were born during a time when staying up late and listening to great music from great DJ’s made for the most exciting and cherished moments of the day. I grew up too late to experience that particular form of excitement; by the time I was scanning the digital dial for new music, great DJ’s were pretty much a thing of the past and corporations had remodeled ratio after the chain store. The enthusiasm of Elvis Costello and the Attractions expressed in this particular song serves as a reminder of the vital role music plays in our lives and the joy we derive from listening to it.
But if you don’t have access to a time machine and can’t go back in the past to hear Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack or Tom Donahue spinning the discs, listening to This Year’s Model will produce the same kind of joy.
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 1980’s.
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 break-up, 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 quatrains, 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 in detaching oneself of 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 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 has appeared between each of the verses, but truly comes to fruition in the extended fade, where the mingling of duduc 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 really 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 clearly 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, 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,” 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.