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Revisiting 'Car', Peter Gabriel's soulful, searching liberation from Genesis

Without a doubt, Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, released within three years of his departure from Genesis, is a deeply spiritual work. Drawing on a backlog of emotions, Gabriel crafted material that exhibited soulful yearning, without sacrificing the band’s predilection for melody and gargantuan production design.

Enhanced by Bob Ezrin’s production design, the album gave Gabriel his chance to emerge from the edges of the pop wilderness to create a work that was both deeply personal and brimming with studio invention. In later years, he came to criticise Ezrin’s soundscape, feeling that it detracted from the essence of the work, but it was the densely coiled arrangements that led the former Genesis frontman to find his own lyrical voice at a time when his former band were triumphing without him.

To his credit, he never explicitly criticises the men who helped him steer the ship, but ‘Solsbury Hill’ is nonetheless wet with anger, feeling that his “silence” won everyone’s favours but his own. Bolstered by Steve Hunter’s chiming arpeggios and Tony Levin’s jaunty bass, the instrumentation helped mask some of the more unseemly aspects of his rage, aiding the vocalist and his listener’s journey forward into the realm of acceptance. The album’s other bonafide anthem ‘Modern Love’ was a more accessible affair, which was supported by a charming video that saw the singer grappling with the less refined aspects of love.

He was growing more comfortable singing about sex, having abandoned the more innocent tales of maidens and knights to his progressive comrades. Like George Harrison, Gabriel didn’t see a distinction between the yearning of the soul, and the carnal desires of the body, as can be heard on the licentiously written ‘Waiting for the Big One’.

‘Moribund the Burgermeister’ continued his penchant for pastiche and bawdiness, while ‘Excuse Me’, all epistolizing and pleas, was one of the most confessional songs on the album. Gabriel was eager to demonstrate the humility, piety, haughtiness and grandeur that had so often been used as fragments of weakness to his strength, demonstrating a desire to express himself without fear of contradiction or compromise.

The album cover seemed to present the singer’s abstract and honest form. Stuck behind the wheel of the car, Gabriel shows no desire to drive, but rather to contemplate the voyage ahead of him. The wheel is stuck, and brushed against the pane of a window, the singer seems primed to exhibit his energies and innovations, but aches for a push to get him to that moment of realisation.

“Bob Ezrin was suggested,” Gabriel recalled. “For my part, I didn’t feel I could be an Alice Cooper, but I made him listen to the extracts of what I had done and he liked them – or, rather, he liked what I liked. We understood each other. We talked. There was an excellent rapport immediately – a human rapport – and that was what I was looking for above al. I tried to achieve a combination of Bob and me as producers. He controlled the American rhythm sections and I handled the more European things. And, on the album, Bob dominated the very rock passages which I wasn’t used to producing, and I led the quiet parts – things I’d done in Genesis.”

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Ezrin brought the ballast, and Gabriel aimed for more ambient, European textures, and together the two men fashioned the work that recognised the importance of the respective genres. Worried by the growing number of American musicians on the album, Gabriel invited King Crimson mainstay Robert Fripp to perform additional guitars, and the Englishman’s work, particularly on the scintillating ‘Down the Dolce Vita’, were exemplary in their resolve.

The album is rich in atmosphere, especially on the colossal sounding ‘Here Comes The Flood’ that proved to be a very moving work, burning with danger and adventure. The guitar-heavy backdrop proved to be of immense musical importance, precipitating the gated art-rock sonics of Gabriel’s superb third album, but the singer typically felt uncomfortable with the explosive tone and stripped the layers back for future performances.
It made for a more intimate listening experience, but the grandeur, exposition and fury that bellowed through the track were missing from concert performances.

But Gabriel never intended to write his work as a way of performing it exactly as it appeared on the record, but to use the work as a map to steer his material from, thus giving him an outlet that owed less to the foundlings of a 1970s prog band, and more to the work that enriched his personal impasto as both an artist and a man.

It’s hard not to feel happy for Gabriel at the close of the record, as the singer finds meaning, purpose, and peace in his life as a former member of Genesis. He made that bold step into the unknown, from which things would only get weirder and more inventive.