Eros & Enchantment: Gabriel's 'US'

Billboard - August 22, 1992
By Timothy White

Eros is the god of love in all its manifestations, whether love ascendant or love in decline. According to Greek mythology, Eros emerged from Chaos yet personified harmony. According to Plato, Eros was "a great daimon," meaning a dispenser of fate. And according to Peter Gabriel, it is the fable of Eros that underlies his forthcoming album "US" (Geffen), as well as the record's acerbic first single, "Digging in the Dirt."

"US", Gabriel explains, "is primarily about relationships. Most of it is the 'us' of two people, but there are also references to the 'us' of a larger group, meaning all that isn't them." For Gabriel, the romantic "us" of his own life would shift over the last decade from his wife of nearly 20 years, the former Jill Moore, to actress Rosanna Arquette, with both attachments ultimately culminating in painful partings.

"Coming off a divorce and the breakup of another relationship, I was trying to sort myself out in various areas," says Gabriel. "I've done about five years of group therapy, so I'm trying to peel the layers of the onion a bit. So I did have this feeling like I was 'digging in the dirt,' trying to expose the devils down there to the daylight. I think part of that process is accepting what is down there and trying to come to terms with it. Plus, I was also looking outside of myself and then recognizing bits of myself in what I was seeing. The record is a journey. Its theme became self-evident over the 18 months I made it. I feel the music flows and works as a whole piece."

Notwithstanding Gabriel's characteristic candor, the personal emotional turmoil that catalyzed "US" ultimately gave rise to a more universal dramatic fable about emotional development. Most of us grow up with exposure to fairy tales, particularly those in which struggle, hardship, and trust result in some degree of character-building. One of the oldest such tales in the Western tradition is the myth of the handsome young god Eros and his mortal lover Psyche. Forbidden to woo the comely Psyche (the Greek word for soul), whom envious gods have condemned to death, Eros rescues and hides her, visiting her to make love only after nightfall. When she breaks the taboo of illuminating her lover's face because her scheming sisters convince her she's sleeping with a hideous monster, Eros must leave her. After a literally hellish quest to regain him, the gods reward Psyche's devotion with immortality, and her marriage to Eros produces a child: Pleasure.

This ancient allegory was the forerunner of the Brothers Grimm's tale of "The Frog Prince" as well as "Kiss That Frog," the pivotal track of Gabriel's "US," wherin a princess must have faith in the affecctions of a bewitched reptile in order to restore him to human form. Gabriel says he concocted his droll rock bestiary after "reading this bood by [child psychologist] Bruno Bettelheim called 'The Uses of Enchantment,' in which he talked about different fairy stories and what they might've been used for from a pyschological perspective." As Bettelheim writes, "It is difficult to imagine a better way to convey to a child that he need not be afraid of the (to him) repugnant apsects of sex. The story of the frog -- how it behaves, what occurs to the princess in relation to it, and what finally happens to both frog and girl -- confirms the appropriateness of disgust when one is not ready for sex, and prepares for its desirability when the time is ripe."

The learning curve of fairy tales as celebrated in the witty / wise "Kiss That Frog" permits the child in all of us to attain a vivid prior comprehension of life's most complex maturational challenges. "In terms of sex education, the fear and horror that actually go with young people's first sexual experiences aren't always addressed," says Gabriel. "And Bettelheim was arguing that the legend of the princess and the frog was very good, because what sat in the pysche after the story was that something that might at first seem repulsive can turn out to be very pleasant."

The concept of "creation as therapy," to use Gabriel's own phrase, has been the crux of his musical drive. Since his post-Genesis debug as a solo performer in 1977 with the first of four discrete eponymous "Peter Gabriel" albums, Peter has examined such solitary dilemnas as the loss of childhood innocence ("Solsbury Hill," 1977) and the animal rages that adult jealousy can trigger ("Shock The Monkey," 1982). By 1986's exuberant "So" album, he knew that the swirling tempo tapestries of his sound had grown as cathartic as they were compelling: "What I'm interested in doing in my music is communicating relief from psychic pain."

At the same time, Gabriel has continued to investigate the spiritual / therapeutic role that music plays in other cultures, with the annual World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival he instituted in 1982 leading directly to the pantheistic psalms of his 1989 "Passion" album. "And I was trying," Gabriel assures, "to integrate what I learned from 'Passion' into the songwriting on the new album -- and I feel it's worked pretty well."

Which brings us to "US," whose unsparing personal inquiry and post-world beat arranging feats find Gabriel at an instinctive new plateau. It would have been easy for Gabriel to distance himself from the vulnerability of the arresting "Digging In The Dirt." But the artist in him recognizes that candid attempts at communion with one's audience often trascend even a determined effort at autobiography. As shown by the elemental sense of renewal in "Secret World" -- maybe the most discerning song Peter Gabriel has ever wrought -- the more a composer strives to share the essense of his insights, the more completely his presence will disappear into his work: "I stood in this unsheltered place / 'Til I could see the face behind the face / ...In all the places we were hiding love / What was it we were thinking of?"

At a time when sexuality is generally discussed in terms of personal freedom, political liberation, or casual denigration, there is seldom adequate sensitivity paid to the painful fears and trials that are the necessary stages of any individual's real emotional metamorphosis. Like fairy tales, song can bring order out of inner chaos, by revealing the hidden meanings of life's lessons at a pace the listener is able to accept. Subtle and stunning, Peter Gabriel's "US" is itself a useful form of enchantment, sparking a new appreciation of the potential of Eros and the pitfalls of Psyche.

"To plug directly into emotions is a goal common to rituals all over the world," says Gabriel. "When I get most sastified with music, it takes me to another place emotionally and then tickles my brain. But there's also a tradition in countries under heavy censorship where the arts can -- not preach, but rather -- reflect ideas that people feel strongly about that are considered off-limits."

"It was such a long, hard process," say Gabriel of his new album and the profound rejuvination it chronicles, "but getting to the end of it does feel good."

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