Why “Solsbury Hill” Still Works

Peter GabrielNot another song post! Sorry. It just turned out that way.

My favorite Peter Gabriel song is “Solsbury Hill.” There have been other songs of his that I’ve liked more, but “Solsbury Hill” is the song that continues to engage me.


Part of this is just the lyrics. Despite being very “literate,” I don’t usually pay attention to lyrics. It’s only after a long time that I can get past the much more profoundly moving music to note them.

But in the case of “Solsbury Hill,” the lyrics are so clear and musically connected that I followed them from the start. What’s more, the refrain says it all:

“Hey!” he said. “Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home!”

There is obvious religious subtext here. But it’s deeper than that. Acceptance is a great thing. Recently, I became accepting of losing my biggest client. I knew if it happened, it was going to be painful. But my relief in accepting it was so profound that the future looked easy. And my client is still around. Things are going well.

That’s a relatively trivial example, of course. And acceptance isn’t always a good thing. For example, a sudden improvement in the mood of a depressed person can be an indication that they have decided to kill themselves. In general, I think that’s a bad thing. But it isn’t always. And we all should work on accepting death.


I bring up the song now, however, because it has an interesting rhythm.

It’s said to be in 7/4 time with a bit of 4/4 at the end of the chorus. What this means is that it has the same 7-beat patterns over and over with a 4-beat pattern during the refrain.

But this is not quite true.

The song alternates 3/4 and 4/4. Yes, 3 + 4 = 7. But consider Pink Floyd’s “Money”:

It’s in 7/4 time. It is built on that irresistible 7-beat bass line. You can divide it into 3-beat and 4-beat sections. And although the 4-beat section would work on its own, the 3-beat section would not. It really only works as a 7-beat line.

“Solsbury Hill” is very clearly a three-beat section and then a four-beat section.

Notice both the repeated guitar and synth/flute phrase: they are three beats and then four. In the case of the synth/flute, it is 3 beats and then a whole note.

This is key to what make the song work. This switching causes the listener to yearn for some kind of resolution. There is a feeling that things aren’t quite right. And then, on the refrain, it resolves with two measures of 4/4. And it is done with the same lyrics that define the song:

“Hey!” he said. “Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home!”

Why It Works

This is an exquisite musical orgasm. But it is brief. Almost as soon as it happens, we are dragged back to that nagging 7/4 section.

I think this is key to why I continue to yearn for this song. It’s about acceptance both lyrically and musically. It’s about resolving conflict. And it doesn’t just show it; it takes us through an actual journey of acceptance and resolution.

4 thoughts on “Why “Solsbury Hill” Still Works

  1. My favorite Gabriel is his soundtrack to “Last Temptation Of Christ.” It’s unusual-sounding. And spiritual. And scores the last shot in the movie where the cinematographer actually ran out of film. Thelma Schoonmaker left that shot in, because she’s a genius, but it’s still one of the most unexpected shots ever shown in a major studio-released movie. Which the music is so good too.

  2. I like the music but I find the lyrics problematic.
    In the third verse he rhymes net, pirouettte, silhouette and etiquette! There is really no meaning to this verse at all. Just looking up rhymes in a dictionary and cramming them in.
    The other two verses have equally awkward rhymes but at least they are about something – a bird starts talking to him / he pretends it doesn’t talk to him.

    • It’s a personal thing. I think those lyrics do have quite a lot of meaning. “When illusion spin her net / I’m never where I want to be.” When guided by illusion, I’m discontented. “And liberty she pirouette* / When I think that I am free.” When I think of myself as free reality shows me otherwise.

      But I am a strong believer in the reader-theory of meaning. So whatever you think is valid. But it’s actually the music that I most care about!

      * Gabriel was a big support of Jules Shear who, at this same time, was not using plurals. I suspect this is related.

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