Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"I Walked Right Out Of The Machinery"

Peter Gabriel--"Solsbury Hill" (mp3)

There are a small handful of songs that matter so much to me that I'll stop what I'm doing and try to listen, anytime, anywhere if I hear one of them start up.

"Solsbury Hill" is one of those songs. For me, maybe not for you. Some songs can be the soundtracks of our lives, songs like Springsteen's "Glory Days," that can churn along in the background as part of the collective consciousness of this country. It's almost an impossible song not to like because it captures such a shock of recognition for all of us, either we've been there or we know someone who has.

But when I hear "Solsbury Hill," I'm never content to have it play in the background. I always want to lean in and hear it.

Now, I'm not the greatest Peter Gabriel fan in the world. I like some of that creepy-voiced, artsy stuff he did with early Genesis. I like a fair number of his earlier songs, ending sometime around "Sledgehammer." I like the song that John Cusack plays on his boombox in Say Anything, trying to reconnect with Ione Skye (I've never really know the name of it consistently, and it isn't on his greatest hits, surprisingly). I like the song he does with Afro-Celt Soundsystem that Billy put on a New Orleans mix a couple of years ago.

So we're not talking about Gabriel here so much as we are talking about the song. It's got that great opening riff, those overdubbed acoustic guitars capoed up a few frets, and the repetition of that riff enough times that it really gets into your head before Gabriel ever starts singing. And, since he's coming from a "prog rock" background, the orchestra, but muted this time, mimicing what the guitar is doing.

It's kind of a story song, since the narrator goes to a specific place and, chronologically, things happen to him--the appearance of an eagle, the voice talking to him, his return to society at the end--but the details are so generalized that it's impossible to nail down the situation. That doesn't always work in a song, but I think it works here.

I guess, more than anything, it's one part of the lyrics that really get to me:

When Illusion spin her net,
I'm never where I want to be.
And Liberty, she pirouette[s],
When I think that I am free.

We all like to think that songs speak to us. Unfortunately, when they speak to me, they are usually songs that focus on isolation, various failures, or forced confrontations with truths that I'd probably rather not confront. But having a good melody and a cohort, of sorts, who seems like he or she is right there, well, as Mary Poppins says, that's the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Poetically, "Solsbury Hill" feels like it is Gabriel's "Tinturn Abbey," his on-the- spot, head back to nature manifesto that charts a fresh or revised belief system, even though he's not satisfied or reassured by what he sees in those around him.

His ambiguous plight that sends him hiking away from society in order to get a fresh perspective on things has a hopeful outcome: not only does some otherworldly voice speak to him and provide him with a cohort, of sorts, but he also resolves by the end to head back down the mountain. Maybe. That whole notion of "you can keep my things/They've come to take me home" has an ominous feel as well, but that's probably just me.
Though it's a classic song now, "Solsbury Hill" always sounds to me like it was written yesterday. Liberty, she pirouettes when I think that I am free. Exactly.

Peter Gabriel's first solo album/cd is available at Itunes.


Billy said...

You know I loves my PG, but I can't quite figure out why his songs, which seem so far away from my little space in the universe (kinda like Bowie), can connect with me emotionally like it does.

Trout King said...

Apparently this song is about his leaving Genesis. That's what I've read anyway.