1/ Red Rain (Gabriel) 5.35 2/ Sledgehammer (Gabriel) 5.09 3/ Don't Give Up (Gabriel) 6.29 4/ That Voice Again (Gabriel,Rhodes) 4.50 5/ In Your Eyes (Gabriel) 5.24 6/ Mercy Street (Gabriel) 6.18 7/ Big Time (Gabriel) 4.25 8/ We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37) (Gabriel) 3.17 9/ This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds) (Gabriel,Anderson) 4.18 Recorded and mixed at Real World Studios, England by David Bascombe Overdubs at Power Station, New York City Engineered by Kevin Killen and Daniel Lanois Additional engineering: David Bottrill and David Stallbaumer Assisted by Jam Crisp Overdub engineer: Bruce Lampcov Assistant: Steve Boyer Percussion recorded in Polygram Studios, Rio de Janeiro Engineers in Rio: Ary Carvalhaes and Jairo Gilberto Studio organization in Rio: Luigi Hoffer Session Supervision in Rio: Renato Costa and Graciela Silberberg Produced by Peter Gabriel and Daniel LanoisJerry Marota: drums (1,8), additional drums (5), drumstick bass (7); Chris Hughs: Linn programming (1); Stewart Copland: Hi-hat (1), drums (7); Tony Levin: stick (1), bass (2,3,4,5), drumstick bass (7); David Rhodes: guitar (1,2,3,4,5,7,8), backing vox (1,5); Daniel Lanois: guitar (1,2,3,9), tambourine (2), surf guitar (7); Peter Gabriel: vocals, CMI, piano (1,2,3,4,5,6,8), Prophet (1,2,3,4,6,7,8), Linn (3,7), percussion (4), synth (5,7), CS80 (6), synclavier (9); Wayne Jackson: trumpet (2,7), cornet (7); Mark Rivera: saxophone (2,7), processed sax (6); Don Mikkelsen: trombone (2,7); P.P. Arnold, Carol Gordon & Dee Lewis: backing vox (2,7); Manu Katche: drums (2,3,4,5), percussion (3,4,5), talking drums (5,9); Richard Tee: piano (3,5,6); Simon Clark: Chorus CS80 (3), Hammond (7), CMI (7), bass (7); Kate Bush: guest vox (3); L. Shankar: violin (4,8); Youssou N’dour: guest vox (5); Michael Been: backing vox (5); Jim Kerr: backing vox (5); Ronnie Bright: bass vox (5); Djalma Correa: surdu (6), congas (6), triangle (6); Larry Klein: bass (6); Nile Rodgers: guitar (9); Laurie Anderson: voice (9); Bill Laswell: bass (9).
Additional arrangement ideas by David Rhodes
Horn arrangements by Wayne Jackson, Peter Gabriel and Daniel Lanois
1986 - Charisma (UK), PG 5 (Vinyl) 1986 - Geffen (USA), GHS 24088-1 (Vinyl) 1986 - Charisma (UK), PGCD 5 (CD) 1986 - Geffen (USA), 24088-2 (CD) 1997 - Virgin (UK), 42801-1/LPCENT 16 (Vinyl) 2002 - Geffen (US), 069 493 272-2 (CD) 2003 - Real World Recordings (Europe), SAPGCD 5 (SACD)Note: Track 9 is only on the CD version, and also appears on Laurie Anderson's album 'Mr. Heartbreak', as "Excellent Birds".
Most obviously, the album catapulted Gabriel to worldwide fame on a level that he'd never previously enjoyed. Though by no means an obscure figure in the music industry, Gabriel had occupied a strange "limbo" status through the early-to-mid 1980s -- successful tours and minor hit songs such as "Games Without Frontiers" and "Shock The Monkey" placed him on the fringes of mainstream success [his role in WOMAD probably didn't hurt either], but there was little to suggest that the success of So was just around the corner. When such success did occur, it obviously transformed the character of Gabriel's recordings -- allowing him to expand further into such ambitious projects as RealWorld, assorted multi- media endeavours, theatrical stage shows, and so forth. Gabriel's professional career became considerably more complex through the success of this recording -- a change which has opened several fruitful avenues, even if Gabriel's own career has sometimes been sidetracked in the process.
So also marked the first signs of the "long delay syndrome" which Gabriel enthusiasts have since come to expect from the artist. The first four Gabriel albums were released in fairly rapid succession, in the five year space between 1977 and 1982. While Birdy was released in 1985 as the result of a fairly brief recording-and-sonic-manipulation session (see the Tentative Review for my comments on the end result), the gap between "albums proper" in the Gabriel legacy expanded to four years with the making of So. At the time, this might have been considered somewhat excessive. Now, six-and-a-half years after Us, it appears a clear harbinger of things to come.
Interrelated with the other two factors is the disintegration of Peter Gabriel's "steady band" during the So sessions. From Peter Gabriel I to Security, the core of Gabriel's touring/recording band consisted of Tony Levin, David Rhodes, Larry Fast & Jerry Marotta. With So, Fast disappeared entirely (leading to a subsequent decline in melodic keyboard leads, naturally enough), and Marotta was pushed to a marginal position (and subsequently removed before the tour, to be replaced by Manu Katche). While Levin, Rhodes & Katche have subsequently reestablished themselves the "core" of Gabriel's band, So nevertheless marks the beginning of Gabriel's increased reliance on outside sources to complete his studio ventures.
From a purely musical standpoint, however, the most pronounced transformation of this time period could easily have involved the demographics of Gabriel's audience. There's no question that tracks such as "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" introduced his work to a younger audience than would previously have been interested in his material; similarly, the success of the album as a whole brought his music into the mainstream of "intelligent/mature art-pop", whether this was his conscious intention or not. The mainstream, of course, can have a stultifying effect on just about anyone -- and while Gabriel deserves credit for continuing to play around with the forms in which he operates (not to mention adding new elements to the music itself), the argument can reasonably be made that certain post-1986 (and, in particular, post-1989) Gabriel recordings have been too "safe" in their musical ambitions (eg. "Love Town" was well- intentioned and fairly catchy, but did it really challenge any of its listeners on a purely musical level?). As of yet, the effect of mass success on Gabriel's music is still somewhat ambiguous -- perhaps Up, whenever it finally arrives, will allow for a more accurate reflection on these matters.
On its own terms, So can safely be assessed as one of the better (art-)pop albums of the 1980s. The album contains a number of hidden treasures which must be judged as atypical of mainstream standards ("Mercy Street" being the most notable example), and, besides which, the use of traditional "pop" actually works, for the most part ("Sledgehammer" is actually a pretty good song, its chart success aside). The album also "holds up" better than most '80s pop, after a decade's reflection. A transitional work it may have been, but there's little about So itself to suggest that fans of Gabriel's early work would have any reason to reject it [except for ultra-purist tendencies, of course].
It strikes me as somewhat unnecessary to "recommend" this album, given that it was one of the top-selling releases of the 1980s and that most people reading this review probably have a copy tucked any already. Nevertheless, this forum may be useful in reminding readers of the merits of this release, even when measured in terms of Gabriel's earlier material.
The album begins with "Red Rain", which perhaps features the best musical performances of the entire release. Gabriel's lyrics focus on a curious state of dreamlike violence (the title unquestionably refers to blood, as Gabriel subsequently acknowledged in an interview), within which the protagonist struggles to assert his own presence, eventually achieving a state of "renewal" (perhaps not surprisingly, the author of the violence appears somewhat ambiguous). The disintegrating rhythm section of Levin & Marotta manages to come up with some truly great accompaniment here, with Levin's presence driving the song forward. This track is perhaps more immediately connected to Gabriel's previous solo work than anything else on the release; as such, it sets a solid foundation for the excursions featured on the rest of the work.
And, of course, these excursions came to fruition rather quickly. "Sledgehammer", a #1 single in the United States [in the same month that Genesis's "Invisible Touch" held the same position, oddly enough -- there's undoubtedly an interesting contrast to be made here], is a tribute to/emulation of 1960s soul, only marginally related to Gabriel's usual recording ethos. Unlike the soul ventures pursued by a certain former bandmate of Gabriel, however, this track actually works as a valid exploration of the style -- the horns and backing vocals fit the context fairly well, the "wobbly" bass line works perfectly, and Gabriel's own voice (which was always fairly strong and emotive) is credible for the experiment -- even in spite of the lingering effects of an upper-middle class British accent. This may not have been what Manu Katche would have expected in working with Gabriel; nevertheless, the drum work toward the end is fairly impressive. Not many artists can capture the pop world on their own terms; in that sense, "Sledgehammer" is a fairly impressive feat.
"Don't Give Up" is fairly impressive as well, despite the (often lamented) fact that Kate Bush's voice isn't used in the best possible manner (Gabriel reportedly intended for a prominent country vocalist to sing the part ... all things considered, its probably for the best that this never occurred). Gabriel sings this number extremely well, with well-composed lyrics reflecting profound social alienation in a condition of financial uncertainty; Bush, sadly, only adds a minor (and lyrically prosaic) complement in the chorus. Levin is once again the star of the musical setting, using a muffled effect on his bass strings to produce a surprisingly deep, sonorous tone. The instrumentation on the conclusion is quite incredible. Despite its one notable flaw, this track is quite worthwhile.
"That Voice Again" isn't usually mentioned in assessments of this album, which is probably a fair assessment of its importance in the overall picture. The album contains some quality lyrics, but balances them with banal, anthemic quips such as "Only love can make love". The music is fairly good, though not an album highlight. Perhaps David Rhodes's innocuous style of guitar craft is useful for Gabriel's musical vision, but such limited ambitions aren't necessarily the best setting for songwriting [to be fair, it can't be all Rhodes's fault]. There's not much that "wrong" with this number, but it seems somewhat underwhelming in context.
"In Your Eyes", a #26(?) hit in America at the time, has since become of one Gabriel's most popular numbers. Although unquestionably a high-quality track, however, it too has a few problems -- specifically, the domestic ideal of the lyrics (especially the banalities of the second verse) occasionally threaten to overwhelm the song in a less-than- appropriate manner [rumours suggest that Daniel Lanois locked Gabriel in a production room late in the recording session, and refused to release him until he finished the lyrics ... I suppose that necessity can be the mother of banality]. On the other hand, the lyrics of the chorus are top-rate, Gabriel's voice is quite incredible, and the musical accompaniment works extremely well. Youssou N'Dour's spotlight at the conclusion was a harbinger of Gabriel's subsequent work in "world music", and is musically worthwhile in its own right. Perhaps somewhat overrated by Gabriel's fans, this is still a notable work.
"Mercy Street" is the highlight of the album, a strongly atmospheric setting based on the live and works of the American poet Anne Sexton [the expression "Mercy Street" makes an appearance in one of her works as well, note]. Lyrically, the track is a highlight of the album -- vocally, the multi-tracked dimensions of Gabriel's voice work incredibly well. The music of the track is dominated by the keyboards (quite odd for a Gabriel track), with the rhythm section (not featuring Levin, interestingly enough) working in a more ambient manner than previously. Not a complex composition, this is nevertheless an advanced work of sonic texturing.
If contrast was what Gabriel had in mind, it's doubtful that he could have chosen a better juxtaposition than "Mercy Street" and "Big Time". The latter track, a #7 hit in America, tells the story of a small-town boy driven to materialist success through an all-consuming will-to-excess. The earlier parts of the song are the most successful from a musical standpoint, with particular acknowledgement due to an unusual stick/drum duet by Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta -- created via a mechanical combination of their instruments, this extremely thick bass sound can be heard in the "bridge" section before the first verse (it was reportedly planned for the entire track, only to be replaced by a Stewart Copeland drum line at the last minute). The Hammond presence is notable as well. One might easily claim that the backing vocals become quite irritating by the end of the track; this concern aside, the track is worthwhile.
"We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" is a musical description of the psychological experiments performed by Stanley Milgram -- which, in brief terms, may be summarized as follows: Milgram's 37 patients were told to administer "shocks" to other patients via an electronic device. The device was, in fact, not connected to anything, and the other patients were in reality paid actors, imitating "shock" effects on command. Milgram's intention was to "test" the obedience level of certain patients -- to discover how far they would be willing to proceed in carrying out orders, without knowing why said orders were given in the first place (as it turned out, some of the 37 did administer "lethal" shock levels to the patients in question). The song which derives from this thematic material is an extremely minimalist number, with an extremely rigid/nervous keyboard percussion line providing the basis for the rest of the work. The expression "We do what we're told" is repeated over and over in a lifeless voice [it's entirely possible that David Rhodes and Tony Levin are actually responsible for these vocals, despite the credits ... which would be rather ironic, all things considered]; Gabriel eventually sings the brief soliloquy of the indoctrinated patient in something of a musical void. While certainly disturbing, it's arguable that this song could have been better developed (Peter Hammill, it might be noted, has referred to this song as Gabriel's least successful number).
"This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" is something of an appendix to the album, a "remake" of a song which Laurie Anderson & Gabriel had previously recorded on the former's Mister Heartbreak album. Some have argued that Anderson's version (based more strongly on the percussion line) is the better of the two; even if so, however, this version features excellent musical performances and good, deliberately naive lyrics. It's presence on the album probably confused more than a few listeners, which never hurts. ;)
So, in other words, is not to be written off simply because of its pop success. Recommended.
The Christopher Currie (courtesy of the Tentative Reviews website)
Peter Gabriel introduced his fifth studio album So with "Sledgehammer," an Otis Redding-inspired soul-pop raver that was easily his catchiest, happiest single to date. Needless to say, it was also his most accessible, and, in that sense it was a good introduction to So, the catchiest, happiest record he ever cut. "Sledgehammer" propelled the record toward blockbuster status, and Gabriel had enough songs with single potential to keep it there. There was "Big Time," another colorful dance number; "Don't Give Up," a moving duet with Kate Bush; "Red Rain," a stately anthem popular on album rock radio; and "In Your Eyes," Gabriel's greatest love song which achieved genuine classic status after being featured in Cameron Crowe's classic, Say Anything. These all illustrated the strengths of the album: Gabriel's increased melodicism and ability to blend African music, jangly pop, and soul into his moody art rock. Apart from these singles, plus the urgent "That Voice Again," the rest of the record is as quiet as the album tracks of Security. The difference is, the singles on that record were part of the overall fabric; here, the singles are the fabric, which can make the album seem top-heavy (a fault of many blockbuster albums, particularly those of the mid-'80s). Even so, those songs are so strong, finding Gabriel in a newfound confidence and accessibility, that it's hard not to be won over by them, even if So doesn't develop the unity of its two predecessors.
4 stars out of 5
Stephen Thomas Erlewine (courtesy of the All Music Guide website)