I have no other record in my current collection apart from Peter Gabriel’s third album (“Melt”) that can drive me right to tears no matter what the circumstances. The 1982 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide described this album as “songs of stark horror” wherein Gabriel “despaired the very modernity that makes his music possible.” Stark and despairing is too right. Melt Gabriel’s face completely off the cover (it’s already half-melted) and what you have is a black hole, albeit one where you are serenaded by the sympathetic Gabriel as you fall in headfirst. If Gabriel had been using his new-familiar two-letter album naming convention this far back, he might have just called this album No and left it at that.
The negation is all there on the surface, right in the song titles: “No Self-Control”, “I Don’t Remember”, “Not One of Us”. The bad vibes starts immediately with “Intruder”, whose booming opening drumbeats bring to mind the amplified footsteps of a monster in the house and lead into a story about an outsider who must invade or violate to feel fully alive. He’s inspired by isolation — that is, isolating another for the sake of doing his dirty work — and only someone who is himself hopelessly isolated could cherish such things. Alone in a crowd, alone in a spotlight, alone against all, despite (and maybe because of) the fact that there are billions of us jammed together on one planet, fuels just about every song on the record.
“Intruder” also serves as a mini-showcase for the album’s broad range of production techniques, which could have been pushed into overkill but instead are deployed artfully. According to the SolsburyHill.org website, the signature booming drums (courtesy of none other than Phil Collins) were a happy accident: they were at one point mistakenly played through the extreme compression of the studio’s talkback system, and the sound so impressed Gabriel that he built the song around it. The lack of cymbals on the album was actually not something I noticed until it was pointed out to me separately. Why do that? I wondered. Then I tried to imagine them with cymbals: they would have sounded too triumphant, too assertive, too positive, for lack of a better word.
“Intruder” rattled me the first time I heard it, but “No Self Control” almost made me fall against the record player and dislodge the tonearm. The title is the song: a narrator tortured by his own hunger and thirst and restlessness — but also his own loneliness and carelessness, things that can’t be quantified and satisfied as easily. He’s gone too far, doesn’t want to think about what terrible things he’s set in motion, and the ceiling of the universe feels ready to fall on his head at any second as punishment. What’s truly striking is how the music — bristling, electric, jarring — wraps itself around these lyrics and complements them. The music bites as hard as the words do without being wholly alienating, a tough trick, especially since Gabriel was somehow able to sustain that level of terror through the whole of the record.
“Start”, a instrumental featuring journeyman Dick Morrissey’s saxophone (he performed the sax line in the memorable love theme from Blade Runner), is the only breathing space so far, and it’s a deliberate red herring. Just when it seems like it’s going to give us something truly positive, the floorboards tear themselves out from under us and “I Don’t Remember” — slow, mean and hard — comes grinding up through the hole. If the narrator of “No Self Control” was trying to fill a hole within, “I Don’t Remember” is the voice of the hole itself: head, stomach, heart and bed, all empty, unfilled and probably unfillable. The end of the track spirals down with a ghastly drawn-out groan like a machine throwing a piston and taking entirely too long to die.
“Family Snapshot”, at first gentle and wistful, takes time winding up to its horrific reveal, but for good reason. It’s a musical encapsulation of every angry loner who ever picked up a gun and decided to make a name for themselves, from Mark David Chapman to Arthur Bremer. Bremer himself was the direct inspiration for the song, although the technical details of the assassination described in the song bring more to mind JFK’s death at the hands of Oswald. The song builds and builds in a way that should be heroic — inside the killer’s mind, this is heroism, after all — complete with more of Morrissey’s soaring sax, but its heroism is horrifying instead of inspiring. The quiet after the storm comes with singsong delivery and nursery-rhyme melody: the man is a boy, playing childish games with fatal consequences.
“And Through the Wire”, the closest thing there is on this record to an unabashedly upbeat-sounding song, sounds impossibly of-the-moment in its lament of how “keeping in touch” has now become “never letting go”, and how we’ve wrapped ourselves in a web of information as much as a net of technology, with equally unexpected consequences. What do you say when everyone thinks it’s all been said before, in a dozen languages? And the superficially playful “Games Without Frontiers” also sounds distantly sinister, all the more when followed up with the playful-to-biting lyrics we’ve all come to know. The games without frontiers are played by the same children featured in “Family Snapshot”, all grown up and in power — not the deepest reading of international politics out there, but certainly one that has taken on strong emotional resonance with most of us.
“Not One of Us” and “Lead a Normal Life” (the two weakest songs on the record, which is saying something given that they’re actually pretty good) come off as two sides of the same coin. The outsiders and intruders who have been glimpsed throughout the rest of the record are now openly condemned and locked away. What society forgets, of course, is that it’s all too easy to purge the world of everything different and dissenting, and in doing so purge all the things that could allow your world to be changed for the better. “…Normal Life” again contrasts a wistful musical sound (at least superficially) with its sinister lyrics, and soon the wistfulness of the music is wistful no longer.
Small wonder the last track, “Biko”, laments the death of one such man and through that lament sees an answer to everything that has come before. Simple human solidarity and connection are how we make our world better and how we armor ourselves, collectively and individually, against whatever may come.