By 1980, the future of Peter Gabriel‘s solo career seemed to be very mysterious indeed. After a strange and messy debut that didn’t exactly renounce his former grandiosity, he trimmed down his sound with a follow-up that promised much more than it delivered. In short, Gabriel seemed as if he wanted to move into territory in which his talent was unproven, and the world (or at least a small segment of it) waited to see if he would boldly charge ahead or slink back onto more comfortable ground.
When the third eponymous Gabriel album appeared, it effectively served to break once and for all with his past and trumpet the arrival of a new Peter Gabriel, one clearly distinct from the former front man of Genesis. The big change was that whereas once Gabriel’s boundless energy exploded outward, it was now introverted and dark. The result was the most detailed record he had yet made, not to mention the spookiest. Gabriel and producer Steve Lilywhite enforced a strict ban on cymbals and explored the now-vacant higher frequencies to the hilt, making eerie screeches and whistles as integral to their method as guitars and drums. It was just the approach they needed, giving the appropriate flesh to Gabriel’s dark lyrical concerns.
Those concerns were given a concomitant overhaul, as well. Like any well-meaning but immature poet, Gabriel had had a regrettable tendency towards the sweeping statement, and the emptiness of the results was inevitably crippling. By shooting for an all-encompassing declaration on this or that pressing concern, he had laid bare his utter lack of authority on such matters and came off as pretentious. On Peter Gabriel , he finally started focusing on the individual and quotidian to nearly the degree he should have. Not everything is perfect, of course, and college-radio-favorite “Games without Frontiers” is a particularly striking example. Attempting to bemoan the evils of war (at last, a pop song to counter all its pro-war counterparts!), “Games” is clumsy and sophomoric, turning the complex horror of international power-mongering into a facile allegory that only high school freshmen would feel smart for deciphering. On an earlier Gabriel album, this might have been par for the course, but it suffers here primarily because it is surrounded by songs artful enough to avoid such laziness.
The majority of the tracks are character sketches of people on society’s fringe: assassins, stalkers, and various stripes of the mentally ill. The accompanying music is so enjoyable that it raises the question as to whether the use of such themes exploits or glamorizes human suffering, but on more than enough occasions, Gabriel hits the perfect notes to communicate his ingenuous empathy. On “Family Snapshot”, he suddenly cuts away from the narrator’s assassination attempt to show a flashback of his lonely childhood, drawn in elegant terms. “Friends have all gone home / There’s my toy gun on the floor”, he sings in a tiny voice. “Come back mom and dad / You’re growing apart / You know that I’m growing up sad”. Such simplicity and directness had always eluded him before, and once he attained it, it was clear that he was finally accomplishing what he had always wanted to.
The real high water mark on the album came with its conclusion, “Biko”. A song about a murdered Apartheid activist, it was exactly the type of thing one could safely expect Gabriel to flub with his anthemic bent. And though it’s easy enough to imagine a stadium full of people chanting along to its chorus, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Its repeated line, “The man is dead, the man is dead”, cuts right to the heart of the matter. It doesn’t waste time with forced analogies or metaphors but instead states the cold hard fact that a good man has been killed, a fact that needs no artsy garnish. In later years, Gabriel would take this approach to a less effective extreme, slaving away at the minute at the expense of larger matters like hooks, but for an all-too-brief moment, the pendulum was caught mid-swing and Gabriel seemed balanced out to near perfection.