Listen to this song, a confessional piece from an artist formerly known for his role-playing more so than for his emotional candour. It’s Peter Gabriel with his “Digging in the Dirt” as taken from his 1992 album Us, a record that was a loose concept album about the nature of relationships.
When Peter Gabriel fronted Genesis, the role he appeared to take on was a using himself as an empty canvas, literally and figuratively dressing himself for each song; a Moonlight Knight, a Watcher of the Skies, a rapidly and unnaturally aged old man, a deformed Slipperman, and many others. He used his body as a tool to communicate characters, with costumes, with hairstyles, with make-up.
It was the early 70s, a period rife with this kind of theatricality and distance between audience and performer. Gabriel and his bandmates were in their early 20s, and (not to put too fine a point on it) British. The possibility that the band would take on a confessional singer-songwriter approach that revealed their deepest vulnerabilities and complex psychologies without filtering it through a character was pretty remote. Even by his arguable peak as a solo artist in the mid-80s, Gabriel was known more as an animated head, more so than a fully-dimensional person in his own songs.
But, by the early 90s, Gabriel had come a fair distance, career-wise and on a personal level, too. He’d been married and divorced. He’d had high-profile affairs with celebrities. His children were grown up. And he’d moved on from the approach that had him emphasizing fanstastical or observational material, including a more political vantage point starting in the 80s, telling stories of social oppression (‘Biko’) and the fear of where reactionary politics might affect our fate as a species (‘Red Rain’).
By the time Us came out, he was ready to tell his own story using his own face. And this was the first single, which revealed all of the pain and turmoil that is often associated with the great adventure that is involved in seeking intimacy with another. The emotions here are extreme, with frustration and rage in a relationship (‘shut your mouth, I know what you are..’) coupled with a recognition that isolation is just as intolerable (‘stay with me, I need support…’). It also acknowledges that seeking the past is a key to the future too, with finding that which is ‘dark and sticky’ inside of us is the first step in dealing with it.
This song was representative of the album as a whole, with songs like ‘The Blood of Eden’, ‘Washing of the Water’, and ‘Secret World’ being other highlights that brought out some of the writer’s most intensely personal material he’d ever committed to vinyl. In some ways, it’s no wonder that he took over a decade to follow this up, seeming to say it all here.
For more information about Peter Gabriel including news of a new album and tour, check out petergabriel.com.
Also, it’s notable that video for “Digging in the Dirt” includes footage of a snail-festooned Gabriel, who endured some pain in letting them crawl on him. In the days before you could fake that kind of thing, those are real snails. And they had a bite or two while the video was being filmed. Talk about an artist’s dedication!