Peter Gabriel – 3 / Melt

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Album cover for Peter Gabriel 3 / Melt

Oddly, Passion was the first Peter Gabriel album that spoke to me. Although So eventually connected with me, his earlier records never did. With that in mind, I’m revisiting 3, an album whose supposed greatness always eluded me.

As I listen with fresh ears, this album feels like Gabriel’s attempt to balance the head that ruled his earlier work and the heart that would guide his later albums. Or, to test my abilities as an armchair psychiatrist, this album represents the tension between the childish indulgences of Gabriel’s id and the development of his healthy adult ego.

Tension is a good word to keep in mind when listening to 3 because there is tension—intentional and unintentional—throughout the album. The intentional tension arises in the lyrics and the musicianship. The lyrics constantly keep the listener on edge as we meet a cast of sociopathic protagonists (antagonists?), from the stalker in the opening track to the government-sanctioned killers who close the album. The musicianship is intentionally jagged and disjointed, attempting to represent those sociopathic tendencies through sound as well as words.

The unintentional tension lies in Gabriel’s struggle to grow from the self-indulgent experimentation of his early work to the thoughtful restraint that defined albums like Passion and Us. 3 was clearly a pivotal moment in his evolution from a ‘70s prog rock guy to the musical voice of both Lloyd Dobler and Jesus. The angular riffs that open “No Self Control” and the barbaric yawp at the beginning of “I Don’t Remember” come across like a desperate plea to his old Genesis fans: “I’m still experimental and unpredictable, please love me!” His divorce from Genesis is an underlying theme throughout these songs, much in the same way his divorce from Jill Moore drove the creation of Us. But his romantic breakup album exuded an artistic confidence beneath its introspective heartbreak, while 3 has the air of an artist who feels he still needs to prove himself.

That battle between id and ego resolves during the final moments of the album. “Biko” is extraordinary. The songwriting is reserved yet experimental, mixing South African music and language with a powerful English rock song. The lyrics are straightforward, yet they contain clever wordplay (Biko / because) and invite the listener to dig deeper into the history of Steve Biko and the anti-apartheid movement. Every musician contributes what the song needs without indulging in self-absorbed experimentation or grandstanding. Biko is the moment where Gabriel’s head and heart come together, where his childish indulgence in experimentation (id) and his sense of morality (superego) are perfectly balanced by the rationality of his healthy adult ego. As a result, there is a compelling case that “Biko” is Gabriel’s finest moment, not just on 3 but in his career. I only wish Gabriel had found this balance prior to the final song; then the album might have warranted the praise that has been heaped upon it over the years.

(In my attempt to keep this review at least somewhat focused, I wrote separately about three songs: “Intruder,” “Start,” and “Games Without Frontiers”)

About Chuck

Chuck is a lifelong music lover. He spent his 20s working as a professional musician before discovering he enjoys listening to music more than playing it. He knows a little bit about most genres, though electronic dance music, rock, and hip-hop are his favorites. Eleven albums/shows that transformed how he sees and hears the world (in order he encountered them): Fleetwood Mac Rumours; Van Halen Fair Warning; The Cure Standing on a Beach; John Coltrane Crescent; De La Soul Three Feet High and Rising; Puccini La Boheme (de los Angeles, Bjorling, Beecham); Everything but the Girl Walking Wounded; Carl Cox, Twilo, NYC, May 2000; Godspeed You! Black Emperor Yanqui U.X.O.; Grateful Dead. Fillmore East, NYC, April 1971; Taylor Swift 1989.

2 thoughts on “Peter Gabriel – 3 / Melt

  1. bobvinyl

    In preparation for your review, I revisited Scratch, Melt and Security. I think you found something similar to what I did: This is a transitional record. When you listen to the three records in order, you can hear the last vestiges of Genesis fading away on Melt. Scratch is full of Genesis and Security is pretty much devoid of it.

    I like the idea of viewing this in terms of psychology, but I think it only works if you limit it to his solo work. Selling England by the Pound and Lamb Lies Down on Broadway are pretty mature works. They are not childishly overindulgent, but rather genre-defining prog records. Is prog over-indulgent? Actually, I think that is debatable. Certainly most of ELP’s work is and most prog bands cross that line at times. But the “three chords and the truth” mentality doesn’t work there. It can’t be judged by the standard of a punk song or a country song. When Peter Gabriel left Genesis and reset his career, he did start over and it did take him at least four albums before he found his new voice. Through Melt, he was like a guy who broke up with his girlfriend, but still went out on dates with her from time to time, though less and less frequently. I think his last date with that old girlfriend, who was a pretty good girlfriend mind you, was on Melt. It wasn’t that the old girlfriend was bad though. He just needed to stop seeing her in order to move on, no matter how comfortable he was with her.

  2. Chuck Post author

    I like the analogy, and it makes a lot of sense. Growth and change are hard, even when you’re Peter Gabriel.

    As I was writing this, I struggled with the idea of id as it relates to prog rock. This is where music (and probably psychology) are difficult to objectively measure.

    I’ve never been able to get all the way through The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, even in my prog-infested teens. (I flew to San Francisco in high school so I could go see Marillion while wearing face paint. I was committed to the cause.) For me, prog is fundamentally defined by id. Sure, there’s musical sophistication–you have to know how to play before you can indulge your urge to do so–but I’ll argue that 99 times out of 100, the act of playing stuff like LLDOB is an indulgence in the childish urges of the id. Sophistication and maturity aren’t the same. But that’s my own taste and I’m sure you could validly argue that the compositional sophistication of prog is, in and of itself, a sign of a healthy adult ego.

    A drummer we auditioned once (who ended up becoming a lifelong friend) asked us during the audition why one of our songs was in an odd meter. He said, “you’re not doing this because it’s good, you’re doing it because you can.” He was right. Interestingly, “Solsbury Hill” is one of my favorite Gabriel songs, and it’s in 7/4. That’s a case where he did it because it was good, not because he could.


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