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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"In Your Eyes" reflects Peter Gabriel's deep understanding of his lyrics

Gabriel's vocal and instrumental arc work in lock step to form a marvelously complete, love-centered narrative.


So how the heck am I supposed to incorporate Thanksgiving into my blog post? It's not like there's a Thanksgiving pop anthem — sorry, Nicole Westbrook, but the > 7:1 dislike ratio (among other things) rules you out.


Call it shoehorning the holiday into the post if you want, but I guess one could say I'm quite thankful for today's entry into my Senior Year Soundtrack for existing, because it's my joint-favorite 80s pop song. All the while, it's also quite deep in how it explores the love about which it speaks. The song: Peter Gabriel's 1986 hit "In Your Eyes."

At its core, "In Your Eyes" is one of the most profoundly deep love songs in the pop music canon. The love of which Gabriel sings is an all-encompassing love, within which the narrator feels comfortable and complete. As Gabriel and his backing vocalists sing: "In your eyes, the light, the heat / (In your eyes) I am complete." Through the metaphor of "see[ing] the doorway / To a thousand churches" in his love’s eyes, the affection also has elements of spirituality; this combination of romantic and spiritual love goes along with African traditions which inspired Gabriel not only for the lyrics, but also for the music behind it. Gabriel’s feature of master Senegalese vocalist Youssou N’Dour is a further nod to these traditions.

Peter Gabriel’s narrative of finding and celebrating complete love is deepened by the music to which he scores his tale. Even though the elements are very cellular and frequently looped, the way Gabriel and co-producers Bill Laswell and Daniel Lanois crafted the layers, looping sections, and other musical elements creates its own cycle of rising tension and cathartic release which go in line with that of the lyrics. The intro and verse establish the song's structure around repeating, two-measure patterns, largely because of that of the piano synth. Gabriel's vocals contain repeated motifs — one in the first half of the verse, one in the second half — but they are outside the 'loop' itself, allowing him to impart greater variation in phrasing and vocal inflection as he relays the first part of his lyrical tale.


In the pre-chorus ("All my instincts / They return..."), the two-bar pattern structure is reinforced tension builds through a combination of more instruments and more intense lines, as well some modifications to the initial loops. Two chords are retained from the verse loop, but their order changes, as does the timing oft he second chord; rather than sounding on the upbeat of the third beat in the pattern, it is played directly on the fourth beat. It's a small change, but it's one I definitely feel considering the cellular nature of the section. New elements, including David Rhodes' guitar ostinato, also correspond to the pattern. I hear Rhodes' pattern as being a main driving force behind this section, alongside Gabriel's increasingly cellular and intense vocal delivery. When Gabriel cries out, "I reach out from the inside," he reaches a high point for the song, one around which the rest of the lyrics and instruments are configured.


After the pre-chorus, a short lead-in ensues, and we finally get a lessening of energy as the vocals, guitar, and other instruments drop out. This change instantly builds anticipation for the upcoming chorus, as does the sudden breaking of the two- and four-bar patterns by Gabriel's vocals re-entering in the third measure of the lead-in. Thematically, one could hear of this shortening of the lead-in by a measure as Gabriel rushing to meet his long-awaited love.


When the chorus arrives, it does so as a definitive release, given the arc of the previous sections, while also continuing the layering from the verse and pre-chorus. The moving upward of key center from D to E increases the song's brightness for the moment, and the modification of the chords and guitar register in the listener's ear, while the addition of backing vocalists and more powerful drums give the section a greater weight. However, I largely hear the chorus as being hardly more intense than the pre-chorus. This relative calmness of the chorus makes thematic sense, as Gabriel takes comfort in the love he's sought and now found. The second half of the chorus ups the energy with more of a celebratory air of the first half, something heard in full after the form cycles through again and the chorus returns. In the latter part of the second (and final) chorus and the resulting jam, the exaltation is musically represented in full, with multiple new percussion elements and vocal lines added. Gabriel joins the backing vocals at the second chorus' end, and Youssou N'Dour at last joins in with his stylings in his native West African language of Wolof.


Of all the new elements added in the final section, N'Dour's vocals grab me the most. His high vocal line soars above the song's instrumental peak, before he joins Gabriel with a ten-beat pattern on the lyrics, "Sa bet chi lamp, chi tangaay, sa bet maangi ci biir." Not only does the pattern's length further the song's rhythmic complexity as it nears its conclusion, but the lyrics reinforce Gabriel's theme: they are a Wolof translation of the chorus' first two lines.


From start to finish, "In Your Eyes" is a strikingly beautiful interpretation of a complex, yet full love, relayed with cycles of calmness and energy which reflect Peter Gabriel's lyrical arc. The restraint in the first half of each of its choruses sells me the song as one in which its creator truly understood how to accurately augment the vocals through the backing instrumentation. All in all, it's one of the most finely crafted pop songs I've ever heard, and one to which I frequently return for comfort.

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