In 1986 Genesis’ founding member, Peter Gabriel released his fifth solo album, So. It proved a popular record, earning him both mainstream and critical appeal, plus numerous awards (including 9 from MTV, a record that he still holds). Now in 2012 the record’s 25th anniversary is being celebrated by being remastered and re-released in deluxe, 3CD and single disc formats.
The set sounds very much of its time because lots of 80s synth and saxophone punctuates the sounds. The music is very expansive and artistic as Gabriel takes on politics as well as the personal. The full spectrum of emotions are covered as well as some ambitious instrumentation, which at times is quirky and experimental while at other moments is more pop and keeping with convention.
“Red Rain” opens things with some clean-sounding, melodic pop. It is easily the key track, because it best captures the vulnerable feelings Gabriel tackles in the ensuing numbers. It was inspired by a recurring dream of his where he was swimming in a sea of red liquid which proved at different moments to be: water, acid rain, wine, a general punishment or blood, and certainly hints at the drama that is to come.
But So’s most definitive moment, however, is the hit single, “Sledgehammer”. This song is famous for its amazing, stop-motion video clip that is overflowing with different ideas and no doubt inspired ever person that has ever seen it. The actual music is also interesting and hooky, as horns and samples are coupled with uncompromising boldness because Gabriel details practically every phallic symbol and piece of innuendo in the book. It’s brilliant and it got past the censors!
It is a little unsettling to go from such a cheeky song to the following, “Don’t Give Up”. That’s because this is a touching duet with Kate Bush. Here, Gabriel is a defeated and isolated man who has fallen on hard times. But beautiful Kate is like a beacon of light, countering his despair with new hope and encouragement. It’s like chicken soup for the soul, so soothing and soft.
Another person who grappled with her fair share of demons was Anne Sexton, a poet who was also the inspiration for “Mercy Street”. This number is really atmospheric as some synth sounds that fit the world music mould shimmer along while vivid lyrics are delivered in a suspended, dream-like state. It’s all rather surreal and more modern-sounding than the other cuts. In fact, you could probably imagine Gotye or Damon Albarn tackling this one with ease.
Rounding out the set is some funky, Prince-like pop in “Big Time”; an ambient hush in “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”; and the climactic, “In Your Eyes” where Youssou N’Dour proudly sings in his Senegalese tongue. The record actually features an impressive list of cameos with The Police’s Stewart Copeland offering some drums while Chic’s Nile Rodgers plays guitar and Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr offers some backing vocals. Another important guest is Laurie Anderson who sings and helped co-write “This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)”.
In creating So Peter Gabriel wanted to have some fun by stepping back and returning to more traditional songwriting and was consciously trying to be less sombre and mysterious. His big ideas would pay dividends because So is full of cascading textures and tones and idiosyncratic melodies. The whole affair is like an excellent excursion through jangly pop, ambient noise, African rhythms, dance-inspired blips and cool soul.
Twenty-five years on and it’s easy to see why these exotic tunes that come packaged as accessible and conventional pop were such big hits that still remain close to people’s hearts. In fact, there’s no need for grandiose statements or justifications, it just is so.
Originally published on 9 December 2012 at the following website: http://www.the59thsound.com/peter-gabriel—so-25th-anniversary-09122012.html
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