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.