The Seven Albums of Peter Gabriel

I’ve resisted ranking Peter Gabriel’s albums for a long time, but finally ready to commit. I rank the seven studio albums, not the soundtracks, covers, and live performances.

1. Up. 2002. 5 stars. I’ve seen many rankings that don’t have Up far up enough. It’s Gabriel’s second masterpiece since Security, and even better. But it’s not an accessible album, to say the least, and those who wanted commercial repeats of So and Us were disappointed. I didn’t want another So or Us. I wanted the raw and wildly imaginative Peter Gabriel of old. Some of the songs on Up really sound like they took ten years to write and hone. Where Us examined relationships, Up mediates on death and grief. Lyrically it’s most like Melt, soundwise like Security. Think of songs like “Intruder”, “No Self Control”, “Rhythm of the Heat”, “San Jacinto”, “The Family and the Fishing Net”, and “Wallflower”. Then blacken the darkness a bit more, dial up the misery, and throw in some techno-industrial shrieks. That’s Up. There are no “Sledgehammers”, “Big Times”, or “Steams” to be found. “Growing Up” is the closest to those mega-hits, but even that one was too cerebral for the Billboard charts. If Up doesn’t grow on you after repeat listens, you’re not a serious Peter Gabriel fan.

Best Tracks: Darkness, Growing Up, Sky Blue, No Way Out, I Grieve, Signal to Noise.

2. Security. 1982. 5 stars. The first masterpiece. There are few hooks here; Gabriel makes earworms out of African and Latin rhythms — if you have the ears to hear. The first two tracks remain the most ambitious songs he’s ever written: “The Rhythm Of The Heat”, which took the texture of “Intruder” and gave it wilder mood and percussive thunder; and “San Jacinto”, which did for the Native American spirit what “Biko” did for South Africans, but twice as compellingly. (It’s about a coming-of-age ritual in which boys are left alone to fend for themselves in the wild.) “Wallflower” is a hymn to all prisoners of conscience, still one of my favorite songs. There are two accessible pieces — “I Have the Touch” and “Shock the Monkey” — which provide Security‘s hooks. The latter song (which isn’t about animal rights but burning jealousy) became his first top 40 hit, but there’s nothing hollow about it; it’s as good as the esoteric tracks. If I had to list the ten albums that I most overplayed in my teen years, Security would make the cut. I still play the living hell out of it.

Best Tracks: The Rhythm of the Heat, San Jacinto, Shock the Monkey, Lay Your Hands on Me, Wallflower.

3. Melt. 1980. 4 ½ stars. The third album is Gabriel’s Dark Side of the Moon, a creative nightmare filled with menace in every dripping song save the last. It paints a canvass of damaged souls — intruders, assassins, amnesiacs — represented by the metaphor of Gabriel’s disintegrating face on the cover. “Intruder” is about a home invasion from the intruder’s viewpoint, filled with spooky chants and scratching noises. “Family Snapshot” gives us a sniper’s point of view. Other tracks, like “Lead a Normal Life”, “I Don’t Remember”, and “No Self Control” remain some of the bleakest mental portrayals in rock music. Finally, at the end of this dark road comes one of the best rock anthems of all time, the ode to Steve Biko. The live versions of “Biko” are epic. Melt isn’t widely loved by fans of the So-Us era, but it’s the album that promised Gabriel a great career if he could keep this up and do even better. Which he sure as hell did.

Best Tracks: Intruder, Family Snapshot, Games Without Frontiers, Lead a Normal Life, Biko (Live)

4. So. 1986. 4 ½ stars. If there was ever a commercial album that I don’t begrudge people calling a masterpiece, it’s So. Unlike his Genesis pals in 1986, Gabriel aimed for wide appeal without whoring himself. “Sledgehammer” may be the catchiest and happiest thing Gabriel ever composed, and “Big Time” just as big, but they are not the sell-out trash of “Invisible Touch”. Alongside those blockbusters are darker pieces with the Gabriel trademarks: the apocalyptic nightmare of “Red Rain” (actually my favorite Gabriel song of all time); the suicide biography of “Mercy Street”; the spooky voodoo finale of “This Is The Picture”. Of course, “In Your Eyes” is the timeless track everyone loves, and which Gabriel always plays an extended version live supplemented by talented musicians. So is an admittedly powerful album, and a towering exception to the popular dreck of the mid-’80s.

Best Tracks: Red Rain, In Your Eyes, Mercy Street, This is the Picture.

5. Car. 1977. 4 stars. Not surprisingly, Gabriel’s first solo effort channeled the prog years of Genesis. Car is as eclectic as Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, and Selling England by the Pound, though of course not as grandiose as those classics. The lead track “Moribund the Burgermeister” especially channels old-school Genesis, and is probably the most underrated song in the Gabriel catalog. Quite opposite in tone is “Solsbury Hill”, the most overrated song though still very good. “Modern Love” (no relation to Bowie) hits the spot nice and hard, and songs like “Excuse Me” and “Humdrum” are gleefully absurd. There’s no consistent texture to Car: it’s Peter Gabriel driving wherever his wheels take him, until he finishes on the haunting piano ballad “Here Comes the Flood” — about people seeing into each other’s thoughts, producing a mental flood; undeniably the album’s best song.

Best Tracks: Moribund the Burgermeister, Solsbury Hill, Modern Love, Here Comes the Flood.

6. Us. 1992. 4 stars. Because it’s his most accessible album — even more than So — there are critics who think Us is his best, for example this ranker. They remind me of critics who say Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s best film, which simply means they don’t really like Tarantino films. Jackie Brown is very good, but it’s the only Tarantino film not set in a weird alternate reality where characters behave in weird Tarantino-like ways. Same thing for Us. It’s a beautiful album, but any album that can be described as “beautiful” isn’t the real Peter Gabriel at his essence. It’s Peter Gabriel playing at optimism, as he explores the theme of relationships. The final song, “Secret World”, is the “In Your Eyes” of the album — everyone loves it, and it’s become one of his finest concert pieces. Two songs in particular, “Steam” and “Kiss That Frog”, are the low-points of the album, and indeed of Gabriel’s entire solo career.

Best Tracks: Come Talk to Me, Washing of the Water, Fourteen Black Paintings, Secret World.

7. Scratch. 1978. 3 stars. The only Gabriel album I almost never listen to from start to finish. It’s not a bad record, but it’s not especially good either, and it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself. For Peter Gabriel that’s unusual. The best tracks are the first three — “On the Air”, “D.I.Y.,” and “Mother of Violence” — but I don’t feel strongly enough about them to list them as such below. Scratch shows Gabriel trying to find his voice after the awesome Genesis homages of Car, but the voice we know and love wouldn’t emerge until the pivotal point of Melt.

Best Tracks: None in particular.

In short:

1. Up is the ultimate Gabriel masterpiece.

2. Security is the first masterpiece, and quintessential Gabriel.

3. Melt is the most important and foundational (and darkest) album, promising greatness ahead.

4. So is the most influential album.

5. Car is the transitional album from the Genesis years, showing verve and nerve.

6. Us is the most accessible (and optimistic) album.

7. Scratch is the not-particularly-distinguished album.

Retrospective: Graffiti

And here we are, at the end of my experiment. The final retrospective hardly qualifies as such, since the song is only two years old. How much distance is needed for a retrospective? Surely at least five, and usually closer to ten. This will be more a perspective, and different in another way too: it’s impossible for me to discuss, think about, or listen to “Graffiti” apart from how I used it in a work of literary fiction.

But first the band, Chvrches. They are well known purveyors of electronic synth-pop, a genre I usually have to be in the mood for. When I am, this Scottish trio is a cut above most. They’ve got chilly atmosphere and unexpected flourishes, and Lauren Mayberry’s voice, while hardly the gift of Irish Dolores O’Riordan, is beguiling in its pleas for a better world. The most recent album, Love is Dead, isn’t as impressive as the previous two; ironically it contains Chvrches’ best song ever.

“Graffiti” (2018) is the lead track on Love is Dead, and right up there with “Gun”, “Lungs”, “Bury It”, “We Sink”, and “Never Ending Circles” — in my view actually better than all these gems. It pulls at the heart as Mayberry sings about kids scrawling their names on bathroom walls, a snapshot of youthful precariousness and dreams to leave a mature mark on the world. Which these kids will never do. For unspecified reasons they won’t see adulthood. It’s a bleak song filled with resignation, and I’ve no idea what drove Mayberry to write such lyrics. But the words and haunting melodies turned out to be just what I needed in “scoring” the novellas I was writing in the late summer and early fall of 2018.

In my Stranger Things fanfiction, Eleven’s son Mike Hopper has a condition that causes his body to age back and forth. It first happens in The New Generation, when he’s 15 ½ years old (in the year 2009); his body starts aging in the reverse direction until he becomes an infant, just as he came from the womb in 1994, now in the year 2025. Then he ages forward again, and by the year 2037, in World’s End, he is 12 years old for the third time. His mother at this point is 66, and barely sane from having watched her son degenerate backwards into a baby (expecting him to become fetal and die) and then back up again, having to raise him perpetually as a child with tormented memories of once being a teenager.

In writing the novellas I realized I wanted a theme song for Mike Hopper, something that captured his tragedy of living 43 years of life (1994-2037) without ever obtaining adulthood. It was handed to me on a silver platter as I was well into the writing of World’s End. I’d been meaning to listen to the new Chvrches album released in May, finally did so, and when I heard the lead track I sat at my desk stunned by the chorus:

I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old
And now we never will, never will…

Mayberry kept repeating the refrain, “And now we never will, never will,” as if worried I might miss what she was hitting me over the head with. Not a chance. Before the song ended, I had Mike Hopper’s theme song. It wasn’t just the lyrics, perfect as they are. “Graffiti’s” sound and melodies were exactly what evoked Mike Hopper’s tragedy. The synth-hooks made my heart ache, and I saw Mike Wheeler’s brave son doing what he could, vainly, to save the world and himself.

As if things couldn’t get any weirder, the video for “Graffiti” was released only two days after I finished writing World’s End (on October 9). The video shows a boy and a girl who are close friends — sharing a bike together, headphones together, everything together like dysfunctional loners — and the boy looks uncannily like Finn Wolfhard. More unnerving is how he and girl seem to be engaged in a suicide pact. They do everything as one, rise and tumble slowly in the air, with dreamy expressions that can be interpreted any number of ways. I see suicidal intentions, given the lyrics (about never growing old), though I’m also obviously projecting onto these kids Mike Hopper’s heartbreaking sacrifice in World’s End.

“Graffiti” is an important song for me, and a fitting exit to these music retrospectives. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and listening, as much I have reflecting on the power of music.

 

Listen here, or better yet watch the video, and sing.

🎶

I’m writing to ask you, did you achieve all you wanted to do?
Before we were dragged up, something was different and nothing was new
How did you see me?
We didn’t know what we wanted to be
When did we move on?
I didn’t feel it, nobody told me

Time to kill
Was always an illusion
Time stood still
And now we never will, never will

We wrote our names along the bathroom walls
Graffitiing our hearts across the stalls
I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will

Standing in streetlights, we didn’t know wrong, didn’t know right
Making a mess and running in circles, getting in fights
We were just kids then, we didn’t know how and didn’t know when
Taking our chances, calling it off and starting again

Time to kill
Was always an illusion
Time stood still
And now we never will, never will

We wrote our names along the bathroom walls
Graffitiing our hearts across the stalls
I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will

Never will
Never will

We wrote our names along the bathroom walls
Graffitiing our hearts across the stalls
I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will
And now we never will, never will

🎶

From the album Love is Dead, 2018.

Retrospective: State of Grace

I’m ducking for cover with this one. Granting the wide spectrum of my tastes, am I really including the gaudy pop star Taylor Swift in this scope of retrospectives? To the derision of many, I’m sure, yes. But bear with me. While there’s no denying that Swift represents the off-putting showy aspects of pop rock — glimmering outfits and troupe dancers, cheered by an embarrassing fanbase — there’s more to her than meets the eye. I found this out when I clicked on a youtube video of “22” in a friend’s Facebook feed, and got better than what I expected. Intrigued, I downloaded the album Red, listened to the whole thing, and from then on thought twice before dismissing musicians on the basis of who listens to them.

Red (2012) was swift’s fourth album, and her turning point as she began fusing country (the worst music on the planet) with alt rock, heartland rock, dubstep, and dance. The result was a texture that glowed with vital purpose. Gone were the sunny lyrics of her country efforts (don’t listen to any of her first three albums), and in their place narratives of brokenness and frustrated communication that yield something better. The texture wouldn’t last; in subsequent albums it gave way to pure pop and dance with little of Red‘s depth. But for a red moment in time, Taylor Swift was worthy of her accolades.

The lead song “State of Grace” was more than just worthy; it’s a slice of swirling perfection. “State of Grace” remains an unusual song for Swift, and she’s never tried anything like it since. I imagine she didn’t dare, as it would be like David Bowie trying to write another “Heroes”. Miracles come once. Swift’s miracle draws on alternative and post-punk influences, and the usual comparisons are U2’s “A Sort of Homecoming” and The Cranberries’ “Dreams”. Frankly I hear U2’s “Mercy” more than those, the throwaway song that was — for whatever insane reason — cut from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. But “State of Grace” isn’t mere recycling. It’s better than its influences, transcends them into a piece that spells a pivotal before and after moment leading to “brave wild love”.

Forced to see the world through a lens of pain and imperfection, and accepting her own shades of wrong, Swift obtains a state of grace — the “worthwhile fight” amounting to something genuinely “good and right and real”. She sings as if presenting a heavenly court case, howling passion, coming down at the right intimate moments, and then soaring upwards again. The pre-chorus, or lift, draws out each part at the end:

And I neverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Saw you comi-i-i-i-i-ing
And I’ll neverrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Be the sa-a-a-a-ame

That pre-chorus is the essence of “State of Grace” and elevates it to the heights few songs obtain. Whoever entered Swift’s life impacted her like eschatology. The lift underscores the dramatic moment by drawing out each passionate line, as the troupe dancers supplement with background howls. It’s the best part of the song, but the whole thing is majestic.

So there you have it. My defense of Taylor Swift, or at least one of her albums, and its lead track which is — in all truthfulness — one of the best songs in pop history. I’ll stand by that forever.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

I’m walking fast through the traffic lights
Busy streets and busy lives
And all we know
Is touch and go
We are alone with our changing minds
We fall in love ’til it hurts or bleeds
Or fades in time

And I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

You come around and the armor falls
Pierce the room like a cannon ball
Now all we know
Is don’t let go
We are alone, just you and me
Up in your room and our slates are clean
Just twin fire signs
Four blue eyes

So you were never a saint
And I loved in shades of wrong
We learn to live with the pain
Mosaic broken hearts
But this love is brave and wild

I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

This is a state of grace
This is the worth while fight
Love is a ruthless game
Unless you play it good and right

These are the hands of fate
You’re my Achilles heel
This is the golden age of something good
And right and real

And I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never
Be the same

This is a state of grace
This is the worth while fight
Love is a ruthless game
Unless you play it good and right

🎶

From the album Red, 2012.

Restrospective: Raconte-Moi une Histoire

M83 is the black sheep of the bands I’m retrospecting (aside from tomorrow’s, which is so off the board it will outrage some readers), and so I’m doubling down by choosing the blackest sheep of all the M83 tracks: “Raconte-Moi une Histoire”.

I try to like M83 more than they deserve, mostly on grounds of their associations. They’ve toured with Depeche Mode; taken inspiration from Pink Floyd and the Smashing Pumpkins. But their output betrays those influences superficially. M83’s music is the self-indulgent dream-pop of retro synths and ethereally melancholic vocals, and I find that sort of thing okay when I’m in the mood every sixty to ninety days… but it gets old really fucking fast.

There is something however about “Raconte-Moi une Histoire” (2011) that hits my sweet spot. As much an audio-narration as a song, it features a little girl who describes a frog — a “very special frog” — that triggers an LSD trip when you touch it: colors change, parents switch genders, everyone jumps into the streets and becomes friends, the “biggest group of friends the world has ever seen, jumping and laughing forever”. It’s an acid trip through the eyes of a child, a world devoid of conflict and pain, that fades into ethereal vocals.

Whether he intended it, or by fun accident, Anthony Gonzales finally wrote the quintessential M83 song. In “Raconte-Moi une Histoire” you can taste the dream and enter the story in a way music seldom allows. Gonzales should try these wacky experiments more often. Because let’s face it, M83 isn’t as revolutionary as they’re made out to be. A lot of their ambience sounds like it’s recycled from earlier works. Some of the hits from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming — like “Midnight City”, pardon my blasphemy — drive me a bit nuts. Electronic music is tricky ground. At its best, it taps emotions that otherwise stay buried; all too easily it becomes redundantly bland and dispassionate. M83’s latest albums (Junk and DSVII) have been much the latter.

I keep listening anyway. A band that can craft songs like “We Own the Sky” and “Raconte-Moi une Histoire” have the potential for all sorts of surprises.

 

Listen here and enjoy the acid trip.

🎶

I heard about this frog
It’s a very tiny frog
But it’s also very special
You can only find it in the jungle
So far away from me
But if you find it and if you touch it
Your world can change forever

If you touch its skin
You can feel your body changing
And your vision also
And blue becomes red and red becomes blue
And your mommy suddenly becomes your daddy
And everything looks like a giant cupcake

And you keep laughing and laughing and laughing
Nothing is ever quite the same really
And after you finish laughing
It’s time to turn into a frog yourself
It’s very funny to be a frog
You can dive into the water
And cross the rivers and the oceans
And you can jump all the time and everywhere
Do you want to play with me?

We can be a whole group of friends
A whole group of frogs
Jumping into the streets
Jumping into the planet
Climbing up the buildings
Swimming in the lakes and in the bathtubs
We would be hundreds, thousands, millions
The biggest group of friends the world has ever seen
Jumping and laughing forever
It would be great, right?

🎶

From the album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, 2011.

Retrospective: I Found a Body

In the ’80s there was “Every Breath You Take”, and in the ’90s “One”. Everyone loved these tender romances, not realizing they aren’t tender romances at all. The Police hit is a creepy stalker song. The U2 ballad is a nasty conversation between two lovers who have been through so much conflict and grief that it spells the end of their relationship. And yet couples continue to play these songs at their weddings. No wonder there are so many divorces.

If there was a song like these in the aughties, I missed it. I would have probably missed the one from the twenty-tens if it hadn’t come from my home state: “I Found a Body” (2011) is by the New Hampshire indie band Tan Vampires, who got about as much recognition as Old Abram Brown, which is to say not nearly enough. Its lyrics sound romantic, but they subvert romance with a realistic portrayal of relationships, and suggest that happiness isn’t found with someone else, but in solitude. My kind of song really.

It’s a beautiful song, which is why it’s so deceptive. Like “Every Breath You Take” it’s infectious, and like “One” it’s melodically soothing. The lullaby starts on an electric guitar and then blooms into something grander, as it becomes supplemented with delicate percussion, soft trumpets, and — best of all — the eerie howls of the background vocals. For all the build-up, everything is kept wisely low-key to the end. It’s all too easy to wreck the mood in pieces like this by starting quiet and going thunder, but unless you’re Ike and Tina Turner covering “Proud Mary”, that’s a recipe for fail.

This is how lead singer Jake Mehrmann said he was trying to flip the sense of comfort in a song that sounds comforting:

Mehrmann: “Despite that ‘I Found a Body’ is a pretty song, it is, to me, still pretty dark. I’ve had people tell me they used it in weddings or that it’s their song with their partner. I’m always sort of like, ‘Um, do you actually know the lyrics?’ I guess it’s nice that people choose to take something positive from it and not just toss it onto some pile of things to despair about. The more unexpected and varied people’s reactions are the more rewarding the experience of sharing the music tends to be.”

Compare that to the statements of Sting and Bono:

Sting: “‘Every Breath You Take’ is a nasty little song. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership. I think the ambiguity is intrinsic in the song however you treat it because the words are so sadistic. On one level, it’s a nice long song with the classic relative minor chords, and underneath there’s this distasteful character talking about watching every move. I enjoy that ambiguity. I watched Andy Gibb singing it with some girl on TV a couple of weeks ago, very loving, and totally misinterpreting it. I could still hear the words, which aren’t about love at all. I pissed myself laughing.”

Bono: “I’m disappointed when people hear ‘One’ as saying ‘we’ve got to carry each other’ rather than ‘we get to carry each other.’ Because it is resigned, really. It’s not: ‘Come on everybody, let’s vault over the wall.’ Like it or not, the only way out of here is if I give you a leg up the wall and you pull me after you. There’s something very unromantic about that. The song is a bit twisted, which is why I could never figure out why people want it at their weddings. I have certainly met a hundred people who’ve had it at their weddings. I tell them, ‘Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!'”

“I Found a Body” is every bit as good and subversive as what Sting and Bono came up with, and every bit as misunderstood. I only wish Tan Vampires were as widely celebrated as The Police and U2. They deserve to be.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

Sleep in your own bed tonight
Aren’t you sick of the fights
All the brave black eyes

There is no need for silence tonight
You can leave on the lights
And do what you like

Because I found a body to call my home
And dozens of roses left by the phone

So take off your own clothes tonight
Out of mind out of sight
Fading from my life

I found a body to call my home
And dozens of roses left by the phone
With all the little things that we’ve tried to feel less alone
There’s nothing about the world that any of us have learned to change
We still know nothing

So what if I’m wrong and you’re right
And I miss you tonight
Like I think I might

If all’s still and silent tonight
It’s an awful insight
Into both our lives

I found a body to call my home
And dozens of roses left by the phone
With all the little things that we’ve tried to feel less alone
There’s nothing about the world that any of us have learned to change
We still know nothing

🎶

From the album For Physical Fitness, 2011.

Retrospective: Mountain Lions

One thing became clear to me in the aughties: the best music was buried in obscurity. And there was plenty of it, if you knew where to look. In one case I didn’t have to look far. One of my co-workers at the Nashua Public Library, Carson Lund, had his own indie band. He was the lead vocalist and piano/keyboard player for Old Abram Brown, a band that authored four albums between 2009-15. Check out that link; you can listen to the entire albums for free, and also buy any of them to support the band.

Of the four albums, the sophomore Restless Ghosts (2010) is the strongest. There are three mighty tracks in particular — “Little Feet”, “Tides”, and “Mountain Lions” — and I’m choosing “Mountain Lions” for today’s retrospection. This song was actually first released on Alive in Winter (2009), but rerecorded for the sophomore album with more oomph and assertive keyboards.

I remember when Carson told me that the song was inspired by a tragedy suffered by one of the band members: a Colorado mountain lion ate his pet. If something that like that had happened to my basset hound when I was a teen, it would have scarred me for life. And if I’d been right there when it happened… Jesus.

The refrain “Why does it have to cost so much to die?” betrays the obvious youthful pain, but it also resonates at this moment, now, during a pandemic. Those bump-covered spheres that fill up the lungs act according to a nature as savage as the wildest cougar. I remember this song also hit me personally when Restless Ghosts was released in October 2010, a month after my father died. (I’d not yet heard Alive in Winter, on which the song first appeared.) Yes, this is a song about a pet, for Christ’s sake, but listen to it. The melodies swell with existential suggestion; the horns come in, working wonders; and Carson’s vocals create a landscape of something more encompassing than literal imagery.

Much of the song resists a strict commentary anyway. Carson admitted the lyrics were a bit incoherent, perhaps, if I stabbed a guess, because that’s what sudden death does to us — leaving us to fumble for the meaning of a shredded life. This is my favorite bit, though I can’t make full sense of it either:

Kickin’ the leaves
Cuz the graveyard don’t talk
We swallow our prey
I know it’s not that hard
Descended to the bedrock

What, so every part of nature, including us, devours what it needs, and every part is bound for the soil anyway, where there’s nothing but a dark existential silence? I’m reading too much into it, no doubt.

Like the other tracks on Restless Ghosts, “Mountain Lions”, blends a bit of everything — indie, folk, alternative, even blues —  to produce a sound that’s both understated and grand. Old Abram Brown never achieved fame, but I tell you, they are better than overplayed bands like Coldplay and REM.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

Mountains lions, they ate my dog and why?
Why’s it have to cost so much to die?
Civil man with civil hands was awed
As the din of the sora went

Crooked and a crowded room
Miniatures by a quilted moon
They don’t see the snow
That’s covering the cul-de-sac road

Oh, they’d go far
And gather in the dark
And slide on the wood
To find a place to walk
And why not stay?
I know it won’t be long
Descended to the bedrock

Mountain lions, they ate my dog and why?
Why’s it have to cost so much to die?
Civil man with civil hands was awed
As the din of the sora went

Oh, they’d go far
And find a place to stop
Kickin’ the leaves
Cuz the graveyard don’t talk
We swallow our prey
I know it’s not that hard
Descended to the bedrock

Mountain lions, they ate my dog and why?
Why’s it have to cost so much to die?

🎶

From the album Restless Ghosts, 2010.

Retrospective: Signal to Noise

In the ten-year interval between Us (1992) and Up (2002), I thought Peter Gabriel had called it quits. Many people wish that he had, and they’re fools. Up may be his least accessible album, but it’s his undeniable best. Some of the songs really sound like they took ten years to write. It’s an album that takes a few listens to grow on you, but damn, it never gets old once you’re hooked.

Where Us examined relationships, Up mediates on death and grief. Us continued the commercial streak of So; Up harks back to the Peter Gabriel of old. Lyrically it’s most like Melt, soundwise like Security. Think of songs like “Intruder”, “No Self Control”, “Rhythm of the Heat”, “San Jacinto”, “The Family and the Fishing Net”, and “Wallflower”. Then blacken the darkness a bit more, dial up the misery, and throw in some techno-industrial shrieks. That’s Up. There are no “Sledgehammers”, “Big Times”, or “Steams” to be found. “Growing Up” is the closest to those mega-hits, but even so, it was too cerebral for the Billboard charts.

Now, eighteen years after Up’s release, I have a hard time naming a favorite track. “Sky Blue”, “No Way Out”, and “I Grieve” are all contenders. They breathe with dense instrumentation and dip lyrically into unexpected places. But for this retrospective I go with “Signal to Noise”.

When I first heard “Signal to Noise”, I couldn’t recall the last time I was so entranced by a song. (Perhaps it was in the early ’80s with Gabriel’s own “Rhythm of the Heat”.) There’s a haunting tagline melody, background orchestra, and the glimmering prize of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. (Khan died in ’97, but his vocals for “Signal to Noise” had been recorded in ’96.) Khan’s voice is downright harrowing, and Gabriel’s none too feel-good either. When he hits the critical verse towards the end — “Wipe out the noise!” — the drums crash and tingles race over my skin. It rolls into the repetition of “Receive and transmit”, an orchestra/percussion combo building to a crescendo that stirs the blood every time. Music that only Peter Gabriel can write.

As for what “Signal to Noise” is about? Let’s consider that. A signal-to-noise ratio is a scientific measurement quantifying how much a signal has been corrupted by noise. So the ratio might compare the level of music to the level of background noise. The higher the ratio, the less interfering noise. It’s also an informal ratio of useful information to false or trivial data. In online forums, for example, off-topic posts and spam can be regarded as “noise” that impedes the “signal” of a desired discussion.

When I hear “Signal to Noise” — a song that’s been with us since Sept ’02, a full year after 9/11 — I hear Gabriel railing against every bit of background din that corrupts our contemporary discourse: the noise of political correctness on the left; alternate facts on the right; pseudo-science that denies global warming, and the necessity of quarantines. In the 21st century few are able to speak the truth; those that can sometimes don’t dare. Gabriel screams “Wipe out the noise!”, and I thrill to visions of PC leftists having their false accusations of bigotry rammed up their asses; of alt-rightists having their junk science models crammed down their throats; of conspiracy theorists silenced — not by rule of law or censorship or deplatforming, but by facts and reason beyond their reach.

Yes, goddammit, wipe out the noise!

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

You know the way that things go
When what you fight for starts to fall
And in that fuzzy picture
The writing stands out on the wall
So clearly on the wall

Send out the signals deep and loud

And in this place, can you reassure me
With a touch, a smile – while the cradle’s burning
All the while the world is turning to noise
Oh the more that it’s surrounding us
The more that it destroys
Turn up the signal
Wipe out the noise

Send out the signals deep and loud

Man I’m losing sound and sight
Of all those who can tell me wrong from right
When all things beautiful and bright
Sink in the night
Yet there’s still something in my heart
That can find a way
To make a start
To turn up the signal
Wipe out the noise

Wipe out the noise!
Wipe out the noise!

You know that’s it
You know that’s it
You know that’s it
Receive and transmit
Receive and transmit
Receive and transmit
You know that’s it
You know that’s it
Receive and transmit
You know that’s it
You know that’s it
Receive and transmit

🎶

From the album Up, 2002.

Retrospective: Ode to My Family

Three fabled musicians died recently, all in the same month: David Bowie (Jan 2016), Dolores O’Riordan (Jan 2018), and Neil Peart (Jan 2020). Brilliant lyricists, incredible performers, marking a dismal start to a new year. Peart’s death impacted me most, but I miss the voice of Dolores O’Riordan like no other.

Hers was the voice of the ’90s, and one of the first things that greeted me on my reentry into America. I returned from the Peace Corps in December 1993, and the album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? had been out for months. I’d never heard rock music sung like this, and while this “cultural shock” was small potatoes compared to the more serious readjustments I was going through, listening to The Cranberries made me feel my missed years with a vengeance. I lost myself entirely in that album, and obsessed songs like “Linger”, “I Still Do”, “Waltzing Back” as if they were my salvation.

Believe it or not, I’m not retrospecting a song from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? — perfect as that album is, and even though “Linger” was a personal milestone. I’m picking from the sophomore album, and no, don’t worry, it’s not “Zombie”. Though that mega-hit is a good candidate, it’s been dissected to death as a neo-“Sunday Bloody Sunday”. (It’s about two boys who were killed in the IRA bombings of 1993. Shortly after the song’s release, the IRA announced a ceasefire after 25 years of conflict. Maybe it’s wishful romanticism, but I like the idea that the IRA agreed to a truce just so that a band like The Cranberries wouldn’t write anymore goddamn songs about them. U2 never pulled that off.) My pick rather is the lead song from No Need to Argue, in keeping with the theme of parental estrangement from yesterday’s retrospective.

“Ode to My Family” (1994) is an ode to love and pain. Aside from “Linger”, there is no Cranberries song in which O’Riordan’s harmonies work gorgeous magic to quite this level. She recalls her simple life in the Irish countryside, and her decision to become a rock star that clashed with her parents’ conservative traditions. She sings all of this in the most lullaby of lullaby-like ways, conflicted over each end of her existence.

There’s strength in subtlety, and in her melodies O’Riordan never gets explicit about the parental issues. Everything is carried on innuendo and undercurrent, suggesting words and deeds that can’t be retracted, yet with hope for amends. The lyrics also shout a desperate loneliness — something that inevitably follows the freedom obtained from youthful rebellion. In an interview she got more explicit in this regard: “Ya know, I spent a long time trying to get out of the home, and get away from that whole parent scenario and be a rebel and stuff. I wanted an independence, wanted to choose the future myself. And I did kinda, ya know, run away from home and all that type of thing — against my mother’s will and everything — and I think at that point I realized that I really missed them all; I realized how good it was.”

Thus the lines:

Unhappiness, where’s when I was young
And we didn’t give a damn
‘Cause we were raised
To see life as fun and take it if we can

Freedom and success left her unhappy and craving her past, when she was young and happy, didn’t have a care in the world, and took from life what she could in the moment. It’s an old enough story — the price of fame and all that — but given a stirring poetic resonance in O’Riordan’s verse.

“Ode to My Family” is about finding peace through remembrance. Of the bad and good parts of growing up, the frustrations and joys impartially. In a time of loneliness and quarantine under Covid-19, that’s a worthy enough exercise. I still pine for the voice that lullabies us down this road of reconciliation.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu

Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu

Understand the things I say
Don’t turn away from me
‘Cause I spent half my life out there
You wouldn’t disagree

D’you see me, d’you see
Do you like me, do you like me standing there
D’you notice, d’you know
Do you see me, do you see me
Does anyone care?

Unhappiness, where’s when I was young
And we didn’t give a damn
‘Cause we were raised
To see life as fun and take it if we can

My mother, my mother she’d hold me
Did she hold me, when I was out there
My father, my father, he liked me
Oh he liked me, does anyone care?

Understand what I’ve become
It wasn’t my design
And people everywhere think
Something better than I am

I miss you, I miss
‘Cause I liked it, ’cause I liked it
When I was out there
D’you know this, d’you know
You did not find me, you did not find
Does anyone care?

Unhappiness was when I was young
And we didn’t give a damn
‘Cause we were raised
To see life as fun and take it if we can

My mother, my mother she’d hold me
Did she hold me, when I was out there
My father, my father, he liked me
Oh he liked me, does anyone care?

Does anyone care?
Does anyone care?
Does anyone care?
Does anyone care?
Does anyone care?
Does anyone care?
Does anyone care?

Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu
Tu tu lu tu

[Repeat]

🎶

From the album No Need to Argue, 1994.

Retrospective: Disarm

“I never really had the guts to kill my parents, so I wrote a song about it instead.” (Billy Corgan, singer for The Smashing Pumpkins)

Corgan said that 27 years ago, but recently (in a June 2019 performance), he said that “Disarm” (1993) is also about his thoughts of killing himself — that he wrote “Disarm” the same day he wrote “Today”, the candid suicide anthem. This means there are two suicide confessions on Siamese Dream, though the second one (“Disarm”) is more complex.

If we deconstruct some of “Disarm’s” lyrics in view of these confessions, the parental issues become obvious:

  • “Disarm you with a smile”: An attempt to diffuse conflict and violence in the home, by smiling and placating everyone.
  • “I used to be a little boy, so old in my shoes”: Children in abusive homes become adults long before they’re ready.
  • “The killer in me is the killer in you”: Homicidal impulses are often genetic and come from parents. Those impulses can turn on the parents, and also become suicidal.

Corgan wanted “Disarm” to be an uplifting song, however, and so focused on breaking the cycle of violence: “what I choose is my choice” — his choice to resist the urge to kill his parents, and himself. In the ’93 interview he said that he wanted his parents to hear the song and make them realize his capacity for tenderness, and to “make them feel really bad for treating me like shit”. The outcome was apparently positive: “Disarm” became his mother’s favorite song on the album.

I find it amazing how a song can carry such hard history, didactic purpose and moving power all at once — and which you can be oblivious of to appreciate. For above all, “Disarm” is a musical smash. Take the lyrics or leave them, it doesn’t matter. With this symphonic ballad, the Smashing Pumpkins inspired legions of alt-rock bands in the ’90s. Many say that Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (1995) was the more influential album, and maybe so, but I think Siamese Dream was the more important one. It may not have the third’s grandiosity, but it has something better, a nakedness showing Corgan taking his deepest artistic risks. “Disarm” was the deepest of all.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

Disarm you with a smile
And cut you like you want me to
Cut that little child
Inside of me and such a part of you
Ooh, the years burn
Ooh, the years burn

I used to be a little boy
So old in my shoes
And what I choose is my choice
What’s a boy supposed to do?
The killer in me is the killer in you
My love
I send this smile over to you

Disarm you with a smile
And leave you like they left me here
To wither in denial
The bitterness of one who’s left alone
Ooh, the years burn
Ooh, the years burn, burn, burn

I used to be a little boy
So old in my shoes
And what I choose is my voice
What’s a boy supposed to do?
The killer in me is the killer in you
My love
I send this smile over to you

The killer in me is the killer in you
Send this smile over to you
The killer in me is the killer in you
Send this smile over to you
The killer in me is the killer in you
Send this smile over to you

🎶

From the album Siamese Dream, 1993.

Retrospective: Black

A week before I left for the Peace Corps, I heard an infectious but thoroughly depressing song in the home of a friend. It involved tattoos, broken glass, and someone’s world turning black, and damned if I could make heads or tails of it, but I was floored on the spot. I was in a raw place at the time, nervous about leaving home for a new home in Africa, and this song did what no amount of self-discipline or breathing exercises could accomplish. It got my undivided attention.

“Black” (1991) is one of Pearl Jam’s famously emotional songs, if not their most emotional. (“Release” is the only real contender.) It’s about a devastating breakup, and was so personal to singer Eddie Vedder that the band refused to make it into a single, feeling that it’s power would be diminished as a single — especially in a music video which could never do it justice. In Vedder’s stated opinion, “fragile songs are crushed by the music business”. He hounded radio-station managers to make sure that Epic Records hadn’t released the song under the table, against his wishes. He was pissing in the wind: eventually the song climbed the Billboard charts anyway. Welcome to the Machine, Eddie.

Vedder has described “Black” as a true story, something he really felt and still does every time he sings it, but he has never copped to who it was that let him down so hard. The end lyrics seem to be the most potentially revealing — I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky. But why, why, whyyyyyy can’t it be, oh can’t it be mine? — but they remain a mystery to fandom. They’re among the most heartbreaking moments in any song, and on this point Vedder has been more forthcoming. He believes — and this is “Black’s” message, as I see it — that real love is love that can’t last:

“The song is about letting go. It’s very rare for a relationship to withstand the Earth’s gravitational pull and where it’s going to take people and how they’re going to grow. I’ve heard it said that you can’t really have a true love unless it was a love unrequited. It’s a harsh one, because then your truest one is the one you can’t have forever.”

In my last retrospective of The Cure’s “Pictures of You”, I said that I couldn’t think of a song that expresses more aching regret over a lost love. Pearl Jam’s “Black” ups the ante: I can’t think of a song that expresses a more knifing pain over that kind of loss. The two songs go pretty well together, actually.

But I saw none of this in the song, comprehended none of it, when it first hit me like a thunderbolt on that November day in 1991. All I knew is that whoever this singer was, he was venting so much torment as if he’d lost a physical part of himself. In the weeks ahead, it was an earworm as I went through Peace Corps training. Funny, it somehow made me feel like I’d left America behind — lost it forever.

 

Listen here and sing.

🎶

Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me as her body once did
All five horizons revolved around her soul as the earth to the sun
Now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn
Ooh, and all I taught her was everything
Ooh, I know she gave me all that she wore

And now my bitter hands chafe beneath the clouds
Of what was everything
Oh, the pictures have all been washed in black
Tattooed everything

I take a walk outside, I’m surrounded by some kids at play
I can feel their laughter, so why do I sear
Oh and twisted thoughts that spin ’round my head
I’m spinning, oh I’m spinning, how quick the sun can drop away

And now my bitter hands cradle broken glass
Of what was everything
All the pictures have all been washed in black
Tattooed everything
All the love gone bad turned my world to black
Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I’ll be yeah

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why
Why, why can’t it be, oh can’t it be mine?
Ooh, ah yeah, ah ooh

🎶

From the album Ten, 1991.