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.
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. The musicians who weren’t front-and-center (Steve Hackett, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford) were quite gifted, their talents apparent even when the music seemed unfocused. And believe it or not, Phil Collins, who later made a career out of worming his way into the hearts of millions of underfucked housewives, was an outstanding drummer, combining sensitivity, excellent timing and awesome power.
When listening to the core Genesis band, I always had the feeling that there was Peter Gabriel on one side of the stage and everyone else on the other. Even though I’m too young to have ever seen them live, Gabriel’s theatricality comes through clearly on their records, and while Gabriel could sometimes stay within role and deliver credible acting performances, he was frequently guilty of hamming it up at the expense of the narrative. Videos of Genesis performances certainly confirm this, and also make it obvious that Gabriel loved being in the limelight. It therefore came as no surprise when I learned that the creation of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was hardly a model of collaboration, as Gabriel, absent due to his wife’s difficult pregnancy, missed the composition and rehearsal sessions but still insisted on maintaining control over the lyrics. That disconnection led to a very curious outcome. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is often musically brilliant, but even I could have come up with a more coherent story line even after downing a hit of acid with a quart of Jack Daniels. The tensions from the experience combined with Gabriel’s urge to go solo led to a divorce. As it turned out, Genesis didn’t need Peter Gabriel as much as he thought they did: A Trick of the Tail may be less ambitious, but it’s a lovely little album. Meanwhile, Peter Gabriel released the first of his four untitled solo albums and also seemed better off for the change. “Solsbury Hill,” “Humdrum” and even the theater piece “Moribund the Burgermeister” are superb works on a pretty solid album. As for his and Phil’s later solo works . . . well, they made a lot of money.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Nursery Cryme served to solidify Genesis’ identity as an often gifted and frequently eccentric progressive rock band unlike any other. Their sound is certainly distinctive and the subject matter of their songs often out of left field. They loved flights of fancy, no more so than in the deceptive description of the story behind the opening track, “The Musical Box.” As depicted on the cover, the story is allegedly about a girl named Cynthia who whacks off the head of her friend Henry with a croquet mallet. According to Peter Gabriel’s macabre fairy tale, what happens in the song is Cynthia discovers Henry’s musical box, opens it and voilà, Henry returns as a spirit and begins to age rapidly—just like three-fourths of the away team on the original Star Trek episode, “The Deadly Years.” Henry turns into a seriously oversexed old fart who then tries to slip it to Cynthia, but a nurse enters and kills Henry by heaving the musical box at his noggin.
Nice try, but that’s not the story told in the song. The story is much deeper, richer and more compelling than the fairy tale would have you believe. On the other hand, I will concede that the symbolism is quite accurate. Allow me to give you an alternative interpretation of “The Musical Box.”
Cynthia, with her “fixed expression,” is the manifestation of the castrating bitch of literature: she’s Hemingway’s Brett Ashley; she’s Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched. When you look at it that way, the old man Henry becomes the archetype of male impotence. At the beginning of the song, he’s addled, infantile, addicted to his musical box and sensing that he is irreversibly slipping away from the living world:
Play me Old King Cole
That I may join with you,
All your hearts now seem so far from me
It hardly seems to matter now.
And the nurse will tell you lies
Of a kingdom beyond the skies.
But I am lost within this half-world,
It hardly seems to matter now.
The music in this passage is gentle, quiet and melancholy, with lovely cascading arpeggiated chords supporting Peter Gabriel’s restrained vocal, delivered partially in a whimpering falsetto with a tone of resignation and bitter hopelessness. The touch of harmony on “half-world” is chillingly beautiful. Henry begs to hear his song again and the music fades (reflecting the fade of Henry’s consciousness as he enters that “half-world”) into a slightly darker passage contrasting flute and an acoustic guitar duet dominated by the lower strings. The grim reality of death is approaching:
Just a little bit,
Just a little bit more time,
Time left to live out my life.
Following a sensitive and reflective musical passage and another request to hear his musical box, something wells up inside Henry—the life force, the urge to survive, the libido. With two distorted guitar chords forging the path, the song takes a stirring turn with Tony Banks’ entering with sharp chords on the organ and Phil Collins coming in with a perfectly executed drum skip and bash. The tension builds and the music absolutely soars with dark energy and a rising tempo to give Steve Hackett the space for a dramatic lead solo recorded with the panning constantly shifting channels so it sounds like his guitar licks are going through your head. I can’t say enough about Phil Collins’ drumming in this passage—his work on the toms, the bass drum, the cymbals come together to form one of the best coordinated drum segments I’ve ever heard.
The band ratchets down the sound to allow Henry to muddle through a passage from “Old King Cole.” Gabriel’s voice here paints a picture of a frail old man with tears running down his cheeks as he sings his favorite song for what could be the last time. The sudden awareness of the clock shakes him back to fear, to the urge to survive . . . the urge to be a man again:
But the clock, tick-tock,
On the mantlepiece—
And I want, and I feel, and I know, and I touch,
Her warmth . . .
The music explodes again, almost in rage this time, with Phil Collins bashing the drums with an intense, steady beat and Banks and Hackett beautifully weaving the musical motifs into a satisfying pattern. The burst of distorted dissonance towards the middle of the passage hints at the simmering anguish and repressed desire welling up in Henry’s soul. The music rises to a crescendo that leads to an intense passage of pounding drums, rising guitar licks and fuzz piano. The scene then returns to relative stillness, where Henry considers his situation:
She’s a lady, she’s got time,
Brush back your hair, and let me get to know your face.
She’s a lady, she is mine.
Brush back your hair, and let me get to know your flesh.
Peter Gabriel’s enunciation of the word “flesh” is both thoroughly creepy and sadly pathetic. In the background, the organ reappears in less than full voice, and combined with Phil Collins marvelous cymbal work and occasional snare hits, we feel the tension begin to rise as Henry arrives at the end of his rope:
I’ve been waiting here for so long
And all this time has passed me by
It doesn’t seem to matter now.
Then, with a glorious drum roll, Phil Collins introduces the dénouement, and as the organ increases in volume and fills our ears, Peter Gabriel acts out the final scene:
You stand there with your fixed expression
Casting doubt on all I have to say.
Why don’t you touch me, touch me,
Why don’t you touch me, touch me,
Touch me now, now, now, now, now . . .
You stand there with your fixed expression. That’s the castrating bitch, that’s the Playboy centerfold who stares back at the lonely man as he coos at her and masturbates in a dingy room that hasn’t been cleaned in months. That’s the woman with the croquet mallet ready to chop off your head. I won’t go so far as to say the head in question is the head of the penis, for it could easily be interpreted as the killing of a man’s center of reason, leaving him the victim of his animal desires. Either way, emasculation is the result.
I realize I’ve spent quite a bit of space on “The Musical Box,” but there are so many more wonderful moments in this perfectly-constructed piece that I could have done a twenty-page essay. The dramatic precision of the arrangement is astounding, and Peter Gabriel’s acting performance is both nuanced and disturbingly empathetic: after all, Henry’s the classic dirty old man—why should we feel any connection to such a loser? Because he’s human, and when an actor can make you feel for the bad guy, that’s great acting in any field. It reminds me of what Javier Camara accomplished in Almodovar’s Hable con Ella: he made you feel sympathy for a hospital aide who was having sex with his comatose patients. All in all, I consider “The Musical Box” to be one of the great works in the history of rock music, progressive or otherwise. It never fails to move me.
Next in sequence is “For Absent Friends,” a pretty and touching vignette depicting the journey of a pair of widowers from park closing time to early-evening church services. The unrhymed poetry allows the authors (all the band members were nearly always listed as authors) some freedom to describe the evocative detail instead of having to squeeze the story into a strict metrical pattern:
Passing by the padlocked swings
The roundabout still turning
Ahead they see a small girl
On her way home with a pram
The dual acoustic guitars are perfectly matched, and Phil Collins does a fine job on the lead vocal, describing the widowers with a slight touch of gentle affection in his voice, especially on the core line: “Heads bent in prayer for friends not there.” The song is well-placed between the grand majesty of “The Musical Box” and the harder, edgier arrangement of “Return of the Giant Hogweed.”
“Hogweed” opens with Tony Banks running his electric piano through a fuzz box, playing with a whirling sense of urgency to alert the audience that the Giant Hogweed is about to conquer Britain! The joy of the song for me lies in the verses, where Genesis showed they were a more than capable rock band in the Tull tradition of hard syncopated rhythms. I love the absolute vengeful satisfaction in Peter Gabriel’s voice when he sings “Stamp them out!” The rest of the song is rather dull by comparison and the story of a plant infestation doesn’t quite live up to its satiric possibilities (it’s the same kind of insanity that leads American homeowners to poison lawns and groundwater in mad attempts to destroy weeds). The humor inherent in the situation never quite materializes and the song becomes a rather long and meandering composition lacking the thematic discipline of “The Musical Box.” Despite its weaknesses, “Hogweed” demonstrates Genesis’ willingness to search for subject matter in odd places, and I admire them for always trying the unexpected.
“Seven Stones” also never lives up to its potential; the opening line, “I heard the old man tell his tale” leads you to expect that a bit of wisdom will follow. Instead of wisdom we find a mix of incomplete mysteries, poorly-thought out symbols and punch lines with no punch. “And the changes of no consequence/Will pick up the reins from nowhere” fails to qualify as either meaningful or memorable couplet in any context. “Harold the Barrel” has a more interesting story, if you have the stomach for a restaurant owner who cuts off his toes and serves them to his family for tea. The populace is outraged and corners Harold as he sits on a window ledge high above the maddening crowd. The problem with Harold isn’t the lyrics; it’s the choppy, clunky rhythm, meandering melody and piss-poor mix that distract from the potential drama and humor of the piece.
“Harlequin” is a very interesting vocal duet that could have been even better if a little more care had been taken with the lyrics. The chorus is syntactically quite awkward, draining power from what should have been the clincher: “All, always the same/But there appears in the shades of dawning/Though your eyes are dim/All of the pieces in the sky.” Flip the second and third lines and delete the “but” and you have a more coherent verse. It wouldn’t have taken too much effort—and might have made the song even more interesting—to rearrange the music to fit the natural flow of the English language.
The Crimson-esque opening to “The Fountain of Salmacis” gives one another jolt of hope that something special this way comes, but this piece is a long way from the disciplined precision and musical excellence of King Crimson. The music completely fails to match the mood of the mythological tale, leaving one to conclude that the only possible purpose for this track was to advertise that someone in Genesis had read Ovid. The original tale is a tale of sexual merging (the event is what turned young Hermaphoditus into a physiological switch hitter), but the fact that the nymph Salmacis date-raped a young boy to achieve that merger is glossed over and horribly under-dramatized in the music. Instead, the song celebrates the superficial symbolism of unity, putting aside the inconvenient truth the merger was hardly voluntary and had to be enforced by the gods. In Genesis’ hands, the story is more Soviet than sexual. What should have been a song boiling over with erotic and moral tension has the embarrassing disappointment of a limp dick. I’d also argue that if you’re going to try to revive a myth, it is the responsibility of the author, poet or songwriter to make the link between the ancient myth and the modern moment. No such connection is made here except to the superficial “oneness” that had died sometime shortly after Woodstock. Even the opportunity to explore women’s equality along the lines of “You’ve come a long way, baby, you can be rapist, too!” was missed.
Nursery Cryme is a typical Genesis album, full of wonders and wondering what the hell they were thinking. When they were all on the same page, they were as good as it gets; when they were off, they were on another planet. The same pattern was repeated in Foxtrot, another album with a stunning opener (“Watcher of the Skies”) and some excellent material mixed with musical and lyrical cacophony. Still, I own several Genesis albums, so it’s obvious I find something appealing about the band, and rather than looking at Genesis as another example of progressive rock excess, I appreciate their efforts to try to expand rock possibilities. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes not. The experimenter never succeeds 100% of the time, but we should be thankful they had the courage to try.