Car, Scratch, Melt – The Peter Gabriel Trilogy
When Peter Gabriel left prog rock band Genesis in 1975, it was largely due to the difficulties of raising a family while in a touring band. But you can also feel the desire for further experimentation with Gabriel. The band format inhibited the kind of music he wanted to make, and so he left to pursue a solo career. His first three albums, collectively know as Car, Scratch, and Melt, illustrate Gabriel bursting with ideas and genre-hopping like a madman. Whether it is cabaret music (“Excuse Me”), acoustic ballads (“Solsbury Hill”) or album ending epics (“Here Comes the Flood”), Gabriel stretched his songwriting abilities to new heights. And those songs are just from the first album!
I group these first three albums together due to their similarities in nature. All three are self titled (hence naming them relies on the excellent cover art.) And his fourth album is significantly different from the group. While Gabriel’s fourth solo album was technically self titled in Britain, it was retitled Security in the United States. That album also marks a departure from the rest, both in label (his first record with Geffen records) and content (mostly electronic sampling.) Hence I treat it differently than Gabreil’s first three solo albums, which I consider to be a trilogy of sorts in that they function together remarkably well.
There’s an incredible interiority to the albums. Each delves into the psyches of rather messed up characters. The albums are soaked in paranoia. And rather than work in abstract metaphor a la his Genesis years, Gabriel instead literalizes the fears and ambitions of the song’s characters. And character indeed is probably the best word to use here. You could probably base short stories around the impressions each song delivers.
While Gabriel still works with extended metaphors (see my “Solsbury Hill” write up here), Gabriel often employs the tactic of directly naming the forces that shape us. “Not One Of Us” on Melt directly tackles the fear of the unknown we all share.
You may look like we do
Talk like we do
But you know how it is
You’re not one of us!
It’s like Gabriel tried to avoid any and all obfuscation, and instead chose the bluntest yet effective approach to the theme. This is a change from his previous work with Genesis, where many a extended metaphor thrived in Gabriel’s songwriting. It might also be a precursor to his pop star success in the 80s, making these narratives more accessible to the public, but still retain a sense of power and artistry to them.
Musically, each album is solid, with Gabriel using pulling out some of the best of the best to work with. (Robert Fripp, anyone?) Gabriel experiments with sound, and pulls off some stuff I’ve never heard anywhere else while making it support the thematics of his work. The string grinding in “Intruder” on Melt is particularly effective in illustrating the tension and creepiness of the Intruder character, for instance. There’s a great synthesis of music and its intending effects, making each song a good representation of the craft of songwriting. It’s not just the combination of good music and good lyrics, but how they function together that marks Peter Gabriel as one of pop music’s distinctive voices.