Lucid and driven. Peter Gabriel’s third solo album sticks in the mind like the haunted heroes of the best film noirs. With the obsessiveness of The Big Sleep (or, more aptly, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, since Gabriel is nothing if not self-conscious about his sources), the new LP’s exhilaration derives from paranoia, yet its theme isn’t fear so much as overwhelming guilt. If rock & roll is capable of comprehending original sin, then Peter Gabriel might be the man for the job.
Gabriel’s methods are similar to those of Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler and Eric Ambler. The singer establishes an “innocent” character who watches the corruption of society from a distance until he finds himself being pulled inexorably toward the center of events. Finally, he’s uncertain where observation ends and complicity begins. This is the essence of modern-day moral geometry — even the passive man must act — but that doesn’t make it any less scary.
You could choose more arty and existential precedents, but Greene, Chandler and Ambler are the right ones, because Gabriel remains steeped in pop sensibility. Even while Peter Gabriel‘s instrumentation is utilizing African drums, Scottish bagpipes, electronic effects (Robert Fripp’s discotronic guitar) and the most evocative whistling since The Bridge on the River Kwai, the music is built on a sound that helps make rock & roll an ally of the type of social clampdown Gabriel is singing about. When the music thunders with power chords, there’s no hint of resolution or redemption: just the sound of the weak being trampled by the strong. The solace of Dick Morissey’s sax solo — the record’s one moment of pure sweetness — is immediately devastated by the goose-stepping bass drum and interrogative terror of “I Don’t Remember,” which smacks down hope with the rubber hose of the third degree.
Peter Gabriel is political rock, trapped halfway between the Gang of Four and Jackson Browne. Gabriel sees the personal horror in every issue — and the issue in every personal horror — and never pretends that the sight of so many open wounds doesn’t make him flinch. For this artist, the traditional ways in which most rock & roll bands get out of such traps — by asserting the possibilities of community or simply by cutting up — are merely cul-de-sacs. In “And through the Wire,” Gabriel turns Van Morrison’s faith in the radio into a macabre joke. With “Lead a Normal Life,” he makes the mainstream optimism and joy of Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen seem worse than naive — he makes you understand why it might be a lie.
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Not that Peter Gabriel is always on target. His tribute to poet and black nationalist Steven Biko, who was apparently murdered by South African police, is a muddle. The melody and dynamics of “Biko” are irresistible, yet what Gabriel has to say is mainly sentimental. He says he can’t sleep at night because “the man is dead.” Why can’t he sleep? After all the carnage the singer’s presented here — “Games without Frontiers” reduces war itself to something as inevitable as a child’s game — what’s one more body? A lot, of course, but not for the reasons Gabriel offers. “You can blow out a candle/But you can’t blow out a fire” isn’t true, not when those lines conclude an album about the fires of possibility being permanently snuffed.
“Family Snapshot” is off the mark because it lapses into the cheapest sort of Freudianism. The protagonist is at last trying to take action (as an assassin), yet Gabriel views this mostly as the result of a lack of parental love. Practically every cut on the LP suggests far better reasons.
Despite its occasional lapses. Peter Gabriel is a tremendous record. At the very least, Gabriel has discarded the florid hedging that’s dominated his work since Genesis. He’s not backing off from anything now, including his excesses. He flinches, it’s true, but he never yields. For once, you get an idea of where the artist stands and what he’s afraid of. In such songs as “Intruder” and “Games without Frontiers,” in which the booming, almost disco-style bass drum slows to an ebbing pulse while the guitars and synthesizers jangle like wracked nerves and the vocals crackle with detached doom, Gabriel’s music resembles his cover portrait: features in disintegration, slowly melting away, all distinctions disappearing and not a damn thing anyone can do about it. Peter Gabriel has seen a hellish future, and there’s no exit.