I am painfully aware that in certain circles it is not exactly sufficiently cool to admit that I am fond of Peter Cetera’s solo career. Visions of gloriously cheesy 80’s or of his bracing high tenor music  enter people’s heads, whether as the soundtrack to their dreams or nightmares. As it happens, when the album World Falling Down came out in 1992 its three singles were immediately popular on adult contemporary radio, and it just so happens that for inexplicable reasons I used the most popular adult contemporary radio station in the Tampa Bay area as my alarm. In retrospect, this was not a good move. Although my fondness for adult contemporary music and easy listening music in general strongly relates to my immense difficulty falling asleep, so much so that the tranquil music of an artist like Peter Cetera or Abba or Donna Lewis can be the difference between a night of restless insomnia and something at least reasonably approximating a good night’s sleep, it must be candidly admitted that such music is not suitable for waking up to. Being a person who did not wake up easily once asleep as a child, it would often happen that for half an hour the gentle sounds of Celine Dion or Peter Cetera would play in my dreams until something in my mind clicked that the sound of that music meant that it was time to get up, get ready, and shovel some dry cereal down in a mad panic as we rushed off to go to my grandparents’ place to wait for the school bus as my mom sped off to work half an hour away.
As is sadly often the case with regards to the music that I grew up loving , I was not aware just how unfortunate my enjoyment of this classic and underrated Peter Cetera album was. To be sure, 1992 was not exactly a good year for soft rock and adult contemporary, at least as far as its crossover potential was concerned into the popular charts, as Peter Cetera was used to receiving from his hits. That is at least one of the reasons why his breakup album “World Falling Down” didn’t exactly set the music charts on fire. While all three of the singles, “Restless Heart,” “Feels Like Heaven,” and “Even A Fool Can See” were top 5 singles on the Adult Contemporary charts, and album closer “Have You Ever Been In Love?” received a great deal of success as the soundtrack to artistic figure skating routines, only “Restless Heart” barely cracked the top 40 and the album as a whole did not sell up to the singer’s usual expectations. All of this is, however, quite irrelevant. As it happened, even as a preteen I was able to relate to the material that Peter Cetera was singing about, and even his approach, his gloomy reflection on the end of relationships, on love and loneliness, on estrangement, on a lack of communication, on feeling that one’s personal difficulties amount to an attack on one’s manhood, and a realization that one is getting older, or at least feeling older, and if one is not necessarily wiser for one’s experiences one is certainly changed by them. These are subjects I can relate to, and many of them are subjects I have been able to relate to for a long time.
One of the most powerful aspects of the album, even in retrospect, and one of its most ominous aspects in my own life, is the powerful tension between the raw emotion of the lyrics and the glossy studio production of the album itself. The effect is an unsettling one given how rarely people tend to focus on the lyrical content when there are pretty and pleasant instrumental parts to distract them from the real core of meaning in the album–one that is especially important given the fact that Cetera co-wrote most of the songs on the album. Cetera is pretty fierce here, singing that he’ll be d___d if he lives without his partner, singing about the man in me that is caged with a rage that he can no longer hide, that he feels like a shadow lost in the night, and feeling that he is unwelcome at home and a fool having to lie and say he’s alright despite the world falling down around him. The effect is somewhat jarring, in that deep feeling is put in such a fashion that few people would recognize it unless they paid attention to his words. Peter Cetera, as he had sung before, was a person used to not being listened to. There are some people whose whole manner of living is so restrained, their ways so gentle and mild, that it is simply impossible for other people to realize just how much is going wrong, or just how upset and frustrated they are about the difficulties in their life. As much as it pains me to admit it, I can relate all to well to Peter Cetera’s suffering.
Yet this tension between form and content is a big part of why the album remains relevant. In 1992, Peter Cetera was far from alone in feeling his world falling down. At the same time as Peter Cetera was putting his raw emotions in MOR adult contemporary form we had artists like Nirvana and Pearl Jam feeling their world was falling down and putting their suffering and sorrow, the pain of broken lives and broken relationships, in grunge albums that were immediately recognized as seminal albums of the era, epochal music that changed the course of music history . Yet the music was not being judged on its content, but rather on its form. Peter Cetera’s music, speaking of the ugliness of divorce and loneliness and struggling to feel like a man, was popular on AC radio while struggling to go even gold or place a top 40 hit, while the same material given a grungy form was selling millions of copies and being hailed as a new age of music. It was not so much the content of these different songs that was so wildly different, but their exterior form. What was placed in a pleasant exterior was judged as pleasant when it was not, while that which was raw and disturbing in its packaging was judged as being disturbing and wicked. This was so even when what was decried was not deliberate corruption but was rather music created in the aftermath of brokenness that was the fault of others, if the responsibility of the young adults making the music. How much are we content to judge based on exterior appearances, whether visual or sonic, and how determined are we to understand the truth of the matter, to reflect on the worlds falling down all around us? Things are not so different now than they were in 1992, after all. The world is not put together any better now than it was back then. Quite the contrary.
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