4 Songs from Peter Gabriel’s ‘i/o’ with Lyrics That Reveal the Album’s Spiritual Meaning
Peter Gabriel released Up in 2002, and it took him 21 years to put out another album of original material. While it shouldn’t take listeners 21 years to warm up to the long-awaited i/o, it’s an album that does require some time to take in its full breadth and meaning. Each of the album’s 12 songs relates to the concept of connection, and while i/o has a clear and cohesive message, it’s in no hurry to get that message across to its listeners—either lyrically or musically.
Gabriel’s conception of connection is multi-faceted and nuanced, so the album’s methodical pace is exactly what’s needed to convey the full impact of his message. A patient approach to listening to i/o lends itself to grasping the centrality of connection to our spiritual life.
Taking i/o in, in its entirety, is a rewarding experience, but one can still grasp the essence of Gabriel’s central message from a few selected passages. A sampling of lyrics from the following four tracks provides a window into i/o’s overarching spiritual theme.
Whether or not it’s what Gabriel intended, the title track serves as a thesis statement for the album. “i/o” stands for input/output, and with his lyrics, Gabriel is making an analogy between the way we connect one piece of equipment (like a cable box, for example) to other pieces of equipment and the way that everything in the universe is connected to each other. In either case, Gabriel surmises it’s just “stuff coming out, stuff going in.” He employs this analogy to shatter the illusion that we are disconnected individuals.
So we think we really live apart Because we got two legs, a brain, and a heart We all belong to everything To the octopus’ suckers and the buzzard’s wings To the elephant’s trunk and the buzzing bee’s sting
From this general perspective, Gabriel gets into the particulars of what connection means and what forms it takes on the album’s other tracks.
In discussing this track on his website, Gabriel concedes that “it sounds trite to just say ‘love can heal,’” but the song’s other lyrics make clear that he is not issuing a platitude. Gabriel uses the song to make the point that, “whatever mess you find yourself within,” feeling the sort of connection to everything that he wrote about for “i/o” is what can ultimately save you. In the third verse, he describes how being at one with nature can defend us from “when the cold has clenched its claws.”
For a moment I raise my head I can breathe the air Out in the sunlight, in all the colors Set against a bed of green A bed of green
In saying that “love can heal,” Gabriel is referring to a specific kind of love. It’s the feeling one gets when they know they belong to something much larger than their physical self.
In “This Is Home,” Gabriel sings about how connection with another individual, as opposed to the universe as a whole, is also essential. In the song’s second bridge, he addresses how connection between two people can be hard and painful, but he also makes the point that the same connection is what allows us to heal from the wounds we inflict on each other.
When we make it hard And when I left you scarred It looks like all is gone Then the love creeps through From deep in me and you Walking down the road Going back home
In the chorus, Gabriel makes it clear that connections with other people aren’t just a nice thing to have; it is actually what it means to have a home.
I know, this is home Home is where I need to be I know, you are my home
On other tracks from i/o, Gabriel alludes to the difficulties of making and keeping our connection to others and to the universe as a whole. The title “Four Kinds of Horses” refers to a Buddhist parable about how the degree of awareness and sensitivity horses have makes a difference in the choices they make. The most aware horses will move accordingly before a whip even makes contact with them, while the least aware horses won’t move or change course until they feel the impact of the whip deep in their bones.
Gabriel uses the parable to make a distinction between those who choose violence and those who choose peace. Focusing on the former, he describes a scenario where a sense of belonging is fostered, but for the purpose of creating terrorists rather than for creating change for a more peaceful world.
They must have seen you looking Watched everything you said Knowing you could be a part of it They fill your head Fill your head
In the chorus, Gabriel explains that what looks like change to the terrorist is really just a continuation of age-old patterns. What is required for real change—and real connection—is a greater sensitivity to what’s around us.
Four kinds of horses, four kinds of men Ah, you think you’re something different But you do it all again Again and again, again and again
While not addressing this specifically, what “Four Kinds of Horses” suggests is that it’s not easy to be the kind of “horse” that can be truly responsive to others, because it requires us to have empathy even when we can’t relate directly to their plight. And If we don’t develop a high level of awareness of what’s happening around us, then we can become susceptible to the manipulation of those who wish to do harm.