Title: Mercy Street
Artist: Peter Gabriel
Trying to choose one song from the mammoth artistic event that is Peter Gabriel's So paralyzes me in the way I sometimes find myself in the aisles of grocery stores. There it's just a matter of making up my damn mind already, whereas here it's a question of real nutrition. It's all good and I want to share. But since I know you've probably had your fill of "Big Time" and "Sledgehammer" and you've probably at least sampled "Don't Give Up" and "In Your Eyes," I've decided to direct your palate to "Mercy Street," Gabriel's somber ode to the complicated confessional poet Anne Sexton. Her poem "45 Mercy Street" and other events from Sexton's life are chronicled in the song.
Awash with synths and close vocal harmony on the surface, the song percolates underneath with Brazilian percussion and synth sequences. This is a common technique in Gabriel's music which always seems to have a sense of urgency even when moving at a crawl. I'm struck by how quiet and spare the song can be at times, perfectly mimicking the atmosphere of the late-night boat ride at the center of the story.
Harmonically, Gabriel creates a feeling of stasis by avoiding any typical progressions toward the tonic. The chords of the verse change infrequently and subtly—each proceeding triad harboring two notes from its predecessor: C#m (c#-e-g#)—A (a-c#-e)—F#m (f#-a-c#). When the chorus arrives, Gabriel launches into a hymn with uneven harmonic rhythm: C#m__A__B_____ | C#m_____ A_____ | E_____A__B__ | C#m_____ (B______) :|| This asymmetry is interesting to me. Does it create a more organic environment for his melody? I don't know but I find it very moving. The harmony seems to swarm around the melody like a school of fish, changing direction only when necessary and only when prompted. There are more details worth mentioning—mostly lingering dissonances in the vocal and synth lines—but they're softened and muted by the delicate production. If songs were paintings, this one would be hanging in an Impressionist gallery with the Monet waterscapes. It's exquisite.