Peter Gabriel’s Playing for Time Lyrics Meaning

Early in December of 2023, Peter Gabriel dropped I/O through his label, Real World Records. This project marks the first album he’s released consisting of original songs (i.e. non-covers) since Up, which came out in 2002.

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for Peter Gabriel's Playing for Time at

I/O is basically made up of a dozen songs (though three remixes of each track). And Gabriel, being who he is, decided to drop all 12 of them as singles, successively in the order they appear on the playlist. Third in line was Playing for Time, which was issued on its own on 21 March 2023 and did manage to appear on the UK Singles Download Chart.

This is a song that Peter Gabriel composed himself, serving as both its writer and producer. And it has been known, to some extent, to his fans for about a decade, as Peter used its instrumental to open most of the shows during his Back to Front Tour, which was held during the early 2010s. And back then, the song was known as “O But” and subsequently “Daddy Long Legs”.

Peter used the likes of NGOs to inspire the songs found on I/O, and in this case that would be the US-based Long Now Foundation, which, according to Wikipedia, “aims to aims to provide a counterpoint to what it views as today’s “faster/cheaper” mindset and to promote “slower/better” thinking”. That organization, as with this song, is influenced by what is known as the Clock of the Long Now, which is currently a prototype mechanism intended to “keep time for 10,000 years”, in the name of encouraging long-term versus short-term thinking. And to note Brian Eno, another musician who was heavily involved in the creation of I/O, is also affiliated with the Long Now Foundation.

The cover art to Playing for Time is titled Mes voeux (avec nos cheveux), a French term which, according to Google, translates to “My Wishes (with Our Hair)”.  And it was created by a French artist named Annette Messager.

Analyzing Playing for Time’s Lyrics

Peter has described this song as being based on ruminations concerning the act of ‘assembling memories’, in terms of whether they entrap or liberate us. The lyrics do not seem to come to a conclusion in that regard. Rather, what they most discernibly speak to is how time keeps moving no matter what, while alluding to us as individuals possessing the power to think positively.

So in terms of Gabriel asserting that “everybody’s playing for time”, it’s not abundantly clear what that statement is supposed to mean. In context, he does seem to be hinting at the notion that memories do have the ability to sort of keep us ensnared in the past. But the singer also seems to imply that such a less-than-ideal frame of thought can be overcome, if only we respectively make the decision to do so. Or another way of looking at it, theoretically, is how one passes or views time being a matter of perspective. Days are going to come and go regardless, and whatever memories are stored in our minds will be there, so it’s up to us to adopt an optimistic outlook.

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