Treble 100: No. 83, Peter Gabriel – So

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Peter Gabriel So

I’ve kicked the habit
Shed my skin
This is the new stuff

Peter. Gabriel. Separate, one the sainted keeper of the pearly gates of Heaven, the so-called “rock” upon which Jesus’ church was built, and the other the trumpeting archangel of the Annunciation, horn always at the ready. Put the two names together and one is given access to a divine musical realm, an entry into a harmonic convergence of synthetic technological breakthroughs along with analog rhythms from around the world. One might think this combination of two saints a bombastic stage name, but Peter Gabriel was born with it, his holy birthright. Having used that name as the eponymous titles for four consecutive albums, all with nicknames that best describe the theme of the cover art (e.g. “Melt“), it was his fifth album, the somewhat sarcastically titled So that became his biggest seller, having him finally hit the proverbial “Big Time,” going five times platinum an amazing 20 years into his storied career.

Everything was different. He had left the Hipgnosis cover art behind for a classic look from Peter Saville, and had long moved on from the prog-rock leanings of his youth as the frontman of Genesis. Having started in that prog world and flamboyantly dressing at times like flowers, foxes, or the embodiment of Brittania itself, So found the then 35-year-old starkly serious, emotionally mature, and artistically complex, free of artifice and obfuscation. Even more important, the album still holds up after nearly 40 years.

When Peter Gabriel released So in 1986, he was already being considered one of the “elder statesmen” of rock. At only 35, an age only considered old by professional athlete perspectives, he was often thrown into the same bucket as Sting and his former bandmate, Phil Collins, both equal in terms of success, but each seeming a bit more out of touch. Even though rock musicians can potentially last much longer than the typical power forward or running back, there is often a judgment in the music world of those who hit their mid-thirties. (Case in point: the Traveling Wilburys had an average age of 44 upon the debut of their first album, but I thought they were positively ancient by the prevailing standard). Sting and Collins, both Gabriel’s contemporaries, did not precariously walk between a rebellious rock aesthetic and superstardom. A bit older, but still of a comparable stature, there was Paul Simon, who was also thrown into the comparative mix. While all had huge selling albums at the time, Collins having one solo and one Genesis endeavor, Gabriel threaded the needle between all three, with the raspy voice that Sting sometimes employed, the emotional heart of Collins, and the newly found world music flavor that Simon infused. All of it together became the juggernaut album that is So.

Younger listeners may not have this same experience, unless obsessively and intently collecting the older formats, but So is one of those “perfect” albums that feels like one long piece. Individually, songs like “In Your Eyes” and “Sledgehammer” stand out, and as the first two singles from the record, vastly different in sound, tempo, and notoriety, but So is to be reckoned with as a collection. Gabriel himself agonized over the tracklisting, lining up intros and outros with meticulous care. We are eased into the record with the escalating sound of Stewart Copeland’s hi-hat and gently escorted out with a plaintive piano and the harmonized vocals of Jim Kerr, Michael Been and Youssou N’Dour. In between, we get some Kate Bush, Nile Rodgers and Laurie Anderson, among a cavalcade of varied musicians at the top of their respective forms. Gabriel ties everything together in two ways: one with his soulful singing voice, and the other with his masterful work with the Fairlight CMI and Prophet synthesizers, making these technological marvels sound far more like natural, acoustic instruments than they have any right to be.

Perhaps it is because the song’s lyrics are based on a dream or vision Gabriel experienced, but “Red Rain” is hypnotic in its composition. It lulls the listener into comfortable states, but will quickly disorient or jar with drum fills and excited shouts, like how one enters a familiar room in a dream only to have it transform before the eyes and taken on a different tone. Tony Levin’s bass work is of particular note here, adding a funk groove to what could be a more sedate ballad. Though he sings his words to an unknown recipient, he could be addressing all of us, “I come to you defenses down / with the trust of a child.” Gabriel has never shied away from hard-hitting topics such as politics with songs such as “Biko” and “Games Without Frontiers,” but some of the tracks on So, such as “Red Rain,” found Gabriel opening himself up and making himself that vulnerable child with defenses down. It is arguably his most personal album, and it would seem that is nowhere more evident than in “Don’t Give Up,” though the song had more personal impacts on others than it reflected Gabriel’s experiences.

Personally, while I enjoyed the big, flashy MTV “video vanguard” hits that were “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time,” the song that cracked my teenage mind and penetrated my wary heart was “Don’t Give Up.” Based on the Depression-era photos of Dorothea Lange and the iron rule of Margaret Thatcher, Gabriel imagined the struggles of the loneliness and despair of the different times. But, like any great work of literature or art, it is its universal appeal beyond its literal meaning that makes it work so effectively. Who hasn’t felt so downtrodden that they wouldn’t want Kate Bush saying to them, “Rest your head. You worry too much”? Gabriel’s then gospel-tinged breakdown on the literal and figurative bridge becomes cathartic. We all leave the song hoping there’s a place we all belong.

Enough has been said about “In Your Eyes” over the years that anything more would likely do the song a disservice. It’s beyond iconic, forever associated with the image of John Cusack with boombox aloft, and with an eleven-minute live version on Secret World that tops the original. It will forever be a fan favorite and rightfully so. Over the years, however, my favorite songs from the album have become those deep cuts (again, with the album feeling like one piece, there really are no deep cuts), such as “Mercy Street,” “That Voice Again,” and “This is the Picture.” In a different universe, these songs could have been the singles, or at least in our world the record company could easily have gotten more radio play from these tracks. I am reminded specifically of Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair and how “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Shout” were the big radio hits, but “Head Over Heels” was the song with more complexity and dynamic range. “That Voice Again” is the “Head Over Heels” of So, rivalling “Red Rain” with its backbeat. It’s the slinkiest, funkiest song on the album.

I can’t hear single songs from So without expecting to hear the next successive song on the album. That is the sure sign of a cohesive collection, or at least a sure sign that I have listened to So more than is healthy. There is very little argument that any other album in his oeuvre, as good as they all may be, can rival So. It is continually declared his best, and it’s not hard to see and hear why. It’s a perfect album. Even the experimental track “We Do What We’re Told” is engaging. Gabriel’s voice is in top form, his songwriting meticulous, and instrumentation ingeniously balanced. He’s just one man, but somehow harnessing the angelic.

Peter Gabriel So

Peter Gabriel : So

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  • Having come to Peter Gabriel as a fan of the 1980’s era of Genesis at the insistence of a friend, this album first felt like a sell out to an impressionable 17 year old that first cut his teeth on PG III and IV. However, like all great music this suite of songs quickly grew on me during subsequent listens and was solidified at my first concert at Madison Square Garden the next year. “We do What We’re Told” permanently hit home for me when I found an early live version of it on a bootleg from the “Scratch” tour. An example of a musician and song writer who took time to craft his music until it was ready to publish. I will be seeing PG live for the fourth time in October and I know his live show will not disappoint. Peter Gabriel has always shown us music at the highest level of its art form.

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