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Peter Gabriel - So CD (album) cover


Peter Gabriel


Crossover Prog

3.84 | 681 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Review #1 in a while, So, Peter Gabriel

So what? It's always slightly annoying when the closest thing to a cheap pun doesn't really fit your opinions (the other one I've always wanted to use was PG tips... I blame a childhood deprived of the fourth series of Blackadder for this terrible sense of humour)... this then makes you write things like reviews. Still, Peter Gabriel's fifth 'real' studio album was his first real mainstream hit, and understandably so: it's a great album, has half a dozen songs that could reasonably have been hit singles (and four of which were, I think) and yet has enough odd and atmospheric stuff, innovation and idiosyncrasy to appeal to long-time fans and smug critics. And it's pretty much flawlessly produced (frankly, I'm amazed that Gabriel's production with Daniel Lanois managed to actually improve on this for Us)... every sound has effect, without ever seeming to crowd the songs.

I suppose there is some 'dumbing down' from the startling structures and raw atmosphere of PG IV (we don't hit anything quite as daring as Lay Your Hands On Me or Rhythm Of The Heat) and the lyrics have also lost some of their mystical grip... I guess Gabriel's new directness leans on his voice the central idea generally being strong enough to sort of spread its mood to the fairly haphazard phrases supporting it and on So, that's not always the case. However, there's also a lot of bigging up on So... the ambience is far more consistent and less naked than on IV, which makes for a more satisfying unity: the 'pop' sensibilities feels linked to the experimental sensibilities. And, most of all, Gabriel's confidence and the tightness of the band(s) is phenomenal... there's really no sense that Gabriel is ever holding back here, which makes even the songs which don't really have much to say oddly moving and the ones which do devastating.

From the opening of Red Rain we are hit by this confidence: it's big, bombastic, catchy, interesting and, most of all, punchy music. The inversion of the grandiose crushing waves of drumming (Stewart Copeland adds some fantastic hi-hat work to Jerry Marotta's clattering drums) and searing vocals descending to the sad showers of piano over a lonely voice at the end. Perhaps could have been cut down, but I can't really think of any moments which don't have something I'd miss. The quality of the synths and treated percussion is only improved from IV and it's overall a superb opener, though I'm not perhaps as keen on it as others here. The confidence hits even harder in the slowly building Sledgehammer, which you've probably heard... a rolling funky song with a seriously awesome bit funky bass/guitar riff, blaring horns and a lead vocal and lyric so infectiously fun that it maybe clouds just how good the music behind it is... the flawless incorporation of the bizarre flute intro into the main song, the little organ melody rolling in at the end, the cool overdub harmony on sledge. While this is an undeniably 'pop' song and probably Gabriel's most notorious hit, I still don't think I've heard anything quite like it.

Contrasting to these two is the lush atmospherically underlined duet Don't Give Up. The matching of Gabriel's increasingly searching and strained vocals meeting Kate Bush's astoundingly sweet and soft replies is just perfect and the idea of the lyrics is here really moving. Credit for the piece's effect goes also to Richard Tee's crisp piano, Levin's smooth, funky, vaguely tragic stick-work and Manu Katche's immensely tasteful percussion. Just incredible.

That Voice Again is the one piece of the album that stands out as not really being particularly great. It's not especially bad, but the melodies just don't strike through, and the contrast of the moments of general shiny threat and the bright shiny chorus feels rather too clunky. And the lyrics just aren't very effective for me. There are a few features I really like... Levin's basswork (and I find it hard to criticise the drumming either), the incredible 'listen to the wind' vocal answer, the rather dark conclusion, but as a whole piece it just doesn't really satisfy.

In Your Eyes simply blows away any doubts left over from the previous piece... I have to admit I probably made myself like the first chorus by sheer force of will... not that I ever particularly disliked it, but I felt that it didn't really match up to the heartbreaking opening. There are very few openings that compare to the way Gabriel introduces 'Love... I get so lost... some-times...' over the rising piano and percussion pairing... and then the way it comes back later is even more powerful. And the chorus keeps building power, too... if I find it a little too light initially, when Levin's bass, Youssou N'dour's backing vocals, the extra drums and the synths come in it moves from heart-wrenching to heavenly.

And Mercy Street: understated and mired in sadness. The cold, lost lead vocals contrast with soft, strange harmonies (my favourite vocals by Gabriel, ever). The percussion is as unobtrusive as any continual rhythm could be, blending in with a whistling sound and the bass (Larry Klein's) has a power over the heart here that I've never really associated with that instrument. And the 'solos' (synthesiser and treated sax) are matchingly soft, sad and unobtrusive. Words really fail to describe this piece (while we're on it, the words of the piece are very striking, 'nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey/nowhere in the suburbs in the cold light of day/there in the midst of it so alive and so alone/words support like bone').

Big Time flows astonishingly well from this utter immersion, snapping straight out with its awesome basslines (I mean, Levin is usually awesome but here he's just on fire... I guess that's the collaboration with Jerry Marotta on the 'drumstick bass' sound), thunking percussion and Gabriel's deliciously ironic 'HI THERE'. A sharp narcissistic mockery of narcissism, with some hilarious lyrics, the snappy Big Time is really not all that much like Sledgehammer if you actually listen to it rather than assuming that any song with occasional gospel backing and some horns will be the same. Loadsa fun. We Do What We're Told is barest piece on the album with freakily singular vocals, and a virtually purely atmospheric backing with the melody stuck more into the percussion than anything else. Hits a distinctly creepy mood.

This Is The Picture, a duet with Laurie Anderson is something completely different again, catchy as any of the more overtly 'accessible' songs and with a delicious sort of interplay between the two singers' slightly gravellier voices and (again, Gabriel's vocals are incredible) their more soulful seconds. As the lyrics go, it's excellent nonsense that really gives an opportunity for the vocals to move around into a lot of different oddity. And the little synth melody and cool bass part are just perfect. Great way to end an album (or at least the remaster?).

So, four stars. I love everything except That Voice Again, though I guess I'm slightly colder to the still superb Red Rain than the remainder of the material. There's a lot to commend So for, and I think it's comfortably Gabriel's most unified effort to that point, even if it's not my favourite. As for the whole pop/prog/SELLLLOUT debate... I really think the possibilities of (very commercially successful) pop music are much wider than people sometimes think, and here Gabriel has demonstrated that with an album of music that can't really be categorised single-mindedly as pop, prog, rock or world. So is an album you should probably have, if only to bear witness to that.

Rating: Four Stars... virtually essential but not quite perfect. Favourite Track: Mercy Street

TGM: Orb | 4/5 |


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