Oh, draw the blinds
We can shut out the night
Oh, pull up the blankets
Pull the blankets up tight
And there are angels on our curtains
They keep the outside out
And there are lions on our curtains
They lick their wounds
They lick their doubt
The song is beautiful, but the best thing that can be read into the lyrics is a hint of healing. The listener hears the fragility of people who have been through great pain — the description of the curtains suggests the presence, or perhaps the sudden absence, of children — and are receding from the world, replacing their strength with an immature faith. Curtains don’t keep much out, and the designs on them contribute very little to even that; but the collapse is affecting, if not quite sweet.
Gabriel was doing a lot of these at the time, the minimal lyrics and mini-epic structure, at least when not concocting the more straightforward singles of his 1986 “So” album. The denseness and clarity of such songs as “Big Time” were most notably left behind in, aside from “Curtains,” “No More Apartheid” with Shankar and Little Steven Van Zandt and “Across the River,” which has popped up occasionally since the early 1980s. These had scant lyrics and a form that most closely resembled, well, a river: a promising beginning, solid enough musically to hold and launch a listener, a long stretch of song river that may drift melodically, or become violent enough to threaten drowning, and finally an arrival at the other bank, where the song concludes firmly. “No More Apartheid,” honestly, stretches the description of this form, being far more insistent and building far more powerfully than the other songs. It’s a torrent of sound, wailing and electric, that begins almost immediately and doesn’t let up until some seven minutes later, leaving behind the image of some exhausted but exhilarated musicians.
It’s difficult to find lyrics for “No More Apartheid,” odd when compared with the dozens of Web sites offering “Across the River” lyrics that are, in total:
Across the river
Across the river
Across the river I go
“No More Apartheid” features, along with chants of the title phrase and invocations against the South African resort “Sun City,” some hooting, hollering and impossible-to-catch suggestions of sloganeering. (“Another day, no more [unintelligible word],” possibly. “Blog it, blog it,” in an anachronistically unlikely plea to set Internet nerds on the trail of quashing a racist regime.) Of the three, it’s “Curtains” that comes off as nearly Proustian.
While Gabriel always had a healthy respect for pop, back to the widely beloved “Solsbury Hill” on his first solo album, he bid blatantly and brilliantly in the late 1980s to achieve hit singledom with “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.” The B-sides and side projects of the time, though, hint that the bulk of his work remained out of the mainstream.
He’s reputed to sort through a stunningly large number of tracks to put out an album, including an alleged 150 for his 2003 effort, “Up,” so it will be interesting to see what Gabriel makes (or remakes) of “Curtains” and what about it retained his interest and attention nearly two decades after its creation. He’s resurrected “Across the River” live recently and left it largely unchanged in structure or tone, so a new “Curtains” may merely hint that Gabriel thinks the world is catching up, finally, to where he was in the late 1980s.