March 17, 2023
Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
- From Peter Gabriel’s 1977 debut self-titled solo album, also know as Car, “Solsbury Hill” is the location, at least in this song, of a life-changing decision or epiphany. In Gabriel’s life, so the story goes, this song illustrates his decision to leave Genesis to spend time with his new daughter. The reason for the narrator’s meditation in the song is unclear, but the evidence suggests that he is casting aside something important to pursue something new in life—a risky move for anyone. This is an experience close to the mystical here, as the narrator discards the things that made us his life until this point to head in a new, uncertain direction. The narrative goes from doubt and potential panic, to considering the consequences, and finally arrives at an inevitable certainty that a change must be made. “Home,” here is used as a metaphor for the speaker’s correct place in life—an honest, true place that may be at odds with the successful life he has built. He is giving that all up to chase some more honest. More real.
This song resonates more with me every time I hear it. Big life changes are always scary and risky, but often necessary to allow us to continue to grow. It’s like that idea from Dune: the sleeper must awaken. Heh, maybe this song is about that awakening, from “success” as defined by social pressures to a more personal way of living. The music, too, even suggests motion, a traveling and gliding through which the lyrics flow while uncertainty changes to resolve. Unterberger (2017) describes the guitar and drums as as the pounding heart and blood flow of the song. The flute hook (played by Gabriel) adds the four-note chime at the beginning of each line that feels like bells signaling a religious conversion or enlightenment. The singer goes from being a passive object swept along by external events to an active subject, finally making a personal decision, albeit risky, to walk a different beat—the song is in 7/4 time (Unterberger 2017).
I guess this song feels personal to me right now, as I have been struggling with my career for a while. While I love what I do, many external factors make my job frustrating and often soul-crushing.
- Indeed, all of this is in the singer’s head, like the Romantic poet who has been inspired by the sublimity of nature, reads the signs and subtleties of the moment, later recollecting his moment of conversion. Making a life-changing decision takes courage, but also imagination to consider the possibilities of freedom. This is my problem: if I am going to make a career change, I lack the imagination to see the possibilities.
- Even “success” can be a rut. When we get too comfortable, we tend to get trapped in the inertia of life, being swept along without volition.
- I see these “empty silhouettes” as dominant forces of the “machinery” (ln. 22) whose presence keep us in-line and on the right track. These blind watchers—what a great image—are more like a Freudian super-ego that keeps us neurotic and therefore doing what we’re supposed to be doing within the sanctioned system.
- The song ends with a yelping celebration of success, epiphany, enlightenment. What a. great piece of music.
- Unterberger, Andrew (2017). "10 Reasons Peter Gabriel's 'Solsbury Hill' Is One of the Greatest Songs of All Time". Billboard. Retrieved 2023-03-17.