Wednesday, May 28, 2008

PETER GABRIEL: Peter Gabriel III (Melt)

Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel
You have to hand it to an album that sneaks up on you the way this one does. A heart beats on the verge of panic (via icy drum kit) and there's that creaking of sneaking, and he's whispering in your ear. He knows all about this stuff, opening windows and moving quietly across floors so you don't wake up. He's thankful for the thrill you give him, laying still as he carefully slides open your dresser drawers, feeling and smelling your pretty dresses. He's the first of the record's disturbed characters we meet, and he's actually the most harmless.

Peter Gabriel's third solo album, popularly called "Melt," is a paranoid, psychotic trip into the collective subconscious of perverts, criminals, obsessives, and the insane, threatening at any moment to explode in a violent melee. Each song is a tone-poem portraying a particular state of mind along a spectrum of unsettling attitudes and behavior that gradually leads to bigotry and violence. Sounds like a hit, eh?

Fortunately, Gabriel manages to execute such a concept without resorting to overblown theatrics or dreary catatonia. Every song here is memorable and sonically unique. Presentation is Peter Gabriel's strength, as he demonstrates on "
Games Without Frontiers", the album's most famous song, featuring ominous synthesizers, Kate Bush's French pronunciation of the title, and nursery rhyme verses about children with dangerously familiar first names playing normal children's games- flying flags, pissing on goons in the jungle, and orchestrating genocide. This is probably the weakest song here from a melodic standpoint, but it's shortcomings as a song are made up for by its achievement as a record. The River Kwai whistling, the distant minimalist guitar, the auxiliary percussion and all the other ingredients give the track more than enough to hold your attention on repeat listens. The entire album is as detailed and textured as well as this song. Gabriel barred his percussionists Jerry Marotta, Morris Pert and Phil Collins from using cymbals, and without that particular crutch they fill up space with a series of fitting and diverse percussive textures. The contributions from the other musicians are just as important; particularly Tony Levin's Chapman Stick playing, which makes "I Don't Remember" a surprisingly funky song about amnesia.

"No Self Control" is an intriguing number: jittery marimbas and groaning guitars all unsettled and threatening to come unhinged at any second, and on top of it all Gabriel's disturbingly convincing vocal performance gets more and more desperate, or maybe more and more resigned, but either way, you wouldn't want to bump into him on your way home. "You know I hate to hurt you…but I don't know how to stop." The way Gabriel fits his voice to the situation is masterful; the whispered chanting on "Intruder", the anthemic flippancy of "Not One Of Us", and the musical acting of the record's centerpiece "Family Snapshot".

"Family Snapshot" opens with a dreamy scene of camera crews and crowds waiting for someone important, a scene set with just voice and piano. Something about "shooting into the light," enough to make you think about an amateur photographer. The intensity slowly builds when he sings "I've been waiting for this…I'm alive" and then we're off, in a heroic, marching singsong of an assassination plot, settling into the modest "I don't really hate you…" It's exceptionally unnerving, and plummets headlong to the climax as our protagonist let's "the bullet fly" and the scene changes to a hushed childhood- a neglected boy with divorcing parents and a toy gun. It's the most disturbing song in Gabriel's repertoire, spine-tingling and melodically heartbreaking.

These lyrics are exercises in minimalist narrative, particularly "Lead a Normal Life". In only six lines a patient in an institution is visited by his parents, who uncomfortably make disjointed small talk about the view, observe that their child isn't allowed to have knives, and ignore the uncomfortable implications of that by abruptly returning the conversation to the view before blurting out "We want to see you lead a normal life." A gentle piano motif sways like the branches outside the patient's window, and there's a sad sense of departure, of being left alone with those strange noises coming from somewhere… The relation between lyric and arrangement is impeccable.

It's hard to say why the album closes with "Biko", which would be much more at home on Security (featuring the song "I Have the Touch", which would be right at home on this record- they should really consider a trade.) This does seem to follow a direct line of thought from "Not One Of Us" and "Games Without Frontiers". The album's focus has expanded from lone sociopaths to entire societies of destructive behavior. While the violence in the previous vignettes was hidden, in late-night trespassing, tucked away in an institution, or in the mind of a neglected child, the murder of Stephen Biko is very, very public. "The eyes of the world are watching now," Gabriel sings in the chilling final lyric before the music fades and the chanting, community of voices is cut short by a gunshot snare.

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