Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tricky Beats: Solsbury Hill

Peter Gabriel: Solsbury Hill


I spent some time with this song a number of years back, nominally in order to arrange it for an a capella group I had formed from a few fellow fellows and mid-level program coordinators at the Boston Museum of Science. If I remember correctly, we actually performed it at the museum staff holiday party that year, complete with awkward choreography and lab coat uniforms, for a cumulative total of seven quadrillion geek points.

The anecdotal research on Gabriel's first solo hit often claims it's a commentary on his experience leaving long-standing prog rock forefathers Genesis; if so, it isn't a subtle one. The lyrics are clunky and graceless upon close examination, especially towards the middle of the song -- "liberty she pirouette" and "I will show another me" are the classic examples, and you can hear some pretty silly rhymes in there, too -- but Gabriel deserves the benefit of the doubt: perhaps the awkwardness is deliberate, a companion to the seven beats per measure time signature, taken together a paired statement on the band tensions alluded to in the lyrics, and the stumblestep hesitancy of leaving the group that made you famous.

That said, Solsbury Hill is one of the most natural uses of the 7/4 time signature that I've experienced. Where Manic Depression lurches through its relatively common trimeter, calling attention to itself in spades, the arrangement of beat stresses here run in pairs (4, 2, 4, 4), rather than taking the much more typical approach of wobbling back and forth between measures of four and three; the pair of 4/4 measures at the end of each chorus hardly stand out against such an even keel. The result is a song which seems perfectly danceable in the radio background, and only confronts the listener as a song of unusual metrics in cases of overanalysis.

It's so natural, in fact, that Erasure's 2003 attempt to turn the song into flat post-disco-tronic 4/4 comes off as a drag, more than slightly less natural than the original. Or maybe that's just the eighties synthbeat. Check it out:

Erasure: Solsbury Hill


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