If longevity and spontaneity are two hallmarks of a healthy relationship, Peter Gabriel's "So" and I have a good thing going.
The 1986 pop masterpiece is, unequivocally, my favorite album ever — and that's saying something as someone known for assigning superlatives with reckless abandon. Knotty and flawed, uplifting and wonderful, I have played it hundreds of times over, yet it still surprises with moments of clarity and ambiguity, revelation and frustration. That I still want to hear it and understand it and get tangled up in it is a testament to its emotional and sonic staying power. Gabriel celebrates "So" with the release of several special 25th-anniversary editions next week and, in concert, I thought it worth revisiting the reasons it has made such an impression.
In one sense, "So" was a departure for the British pop star; in another, it exists as the most quintessential, personal record he's ever made. In his role as the first frontman of Genesis and in the initial years of his solo career, Gabriel was just as concerned with making grandiose gestures and dressing up in decadent costumes as crafting powerful pop hooks. For each accessible hit such as "Solsbury Hill" and "Shock the Monkey," he crafted an equally puzzling exercise in musical adventurism. "So" found Gabriel retaining his status as an innovator while relating to the listener in a more intimate way than ever before.
AllMusic has called it "the catchiest, happiest record he ever cut," an interesting designation when you call to mind it considers themes related to suicide, self-doubt and social conditioning. Yet the record does find Gabriel delivering surprisingly buoyant anthems. Smash hit "Sledgehammer," for example, is all brass and bass and bump-and-grind. All along the way, he displays what AllMusic called an "increased melodicism and ability to blend African music, jangly pop and soul into his moody art rock."
And, as the Los Angeles Times said at the time, in every instance where Gabriel delivers hard truths or creates intentionally jarring moments, "the spark of hope glows strongly and the music delivers the blows with grand, listenable strokes rather than rude shocks."
When discussing an album's historical merit, the conversation often turns to its relationship with time, how timeless it sounds or how it was more artistically advanced than the moment in which it was made. "So" is an obvious product of its era, as synth-laden and bombastic as the 1980s themselves. At the time, the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument), synclavier and Linn processors listed in the album's liner notes were on the cutting edge of digital music-making; I doubt those instruments are in wide use today.
Yet, the emotions and experiences the album concerns itself with are universal and undying — vulnerability ("I come to you defenses down / with the trust of a child," Gabriel sings in "Red Rain"), lusty bravado ("Sledgehammer"), unchecked ambition and self-love ("Big Time"), devotion ("In Your Eyes") and defeat ("Don't Give Up").
Writing at the time of the record's release, Rolling Stone's Tim Holmes said the album's "flawless high-tech production," "insinuating melodic strength" and "bittersweet dreamlike ambiance" made it easy listening "yet initially obscures the fact that the album is illuminated by an inner light of subversion, an acknowledgement of the emotional tug of war lying beneath the surface of day-to-day reality."
The album's centerpiece, "In Your Eyes," indeed radiates that same subversive spirit. Ostensibly, it is a hymn to romantic love — and a skillful one at that, as Gabriel delivers a stirring melody against a rousing chord progression, rolling thunderclaps of percussion and an unrestrained, joyous chorus of background singers.
The song does something few other ballads do; while elevating love to a sacred plane, it still acknowledges the frailty and fatigue inherent to the ongoing process of merging lives. "In your eyes / I see the doorway to a thousand churches … the resolution of all the fruitless searches," Gabriel sings at one moment. At another, he admits to "so much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away / I get so tired of working so hard for our survival / I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive."
Other emotionally enduring tracks on the record include "Don't Give Up," a trip to the cinema in a six-minute pop song. Gabriel's narrator is on the verge of some unnamed defeat before Kate Bush's glorious voice, bringing a vow of unconditional love, and gospel-flecked piano riffs lift him from the depths. "Mercy Seat," an ode to poet Anne Sexton and her dysfunctional family, is quiet, almost imperceptible, yet disquieting. In relaying a beautiful sort of heartache, Gabriel sets a radiant melody afloat on glacial harmonic currents and ripples of percussion that agitate the otherwise glassy sonic sea. "There in the midst of it so alive and alone / Words support like bone," he sings.
"So" was a high-water mark for Gabriel commercially, selling more than 5 million copies stateside, and artistically. Subsequent efforts such as 1992's "Us" and 2002's "Up" are strong and underrated yet insufficient by comparison.
"Beneath its disarming simplicity and accessibility is the voice of an artist who does what his heart tells him to do," Holmes wrote in 1986. "That 'So' would finally bring Peter Gabriel commercial success is an extremely positive sign for the acceptability of intelligence on the airwaves and in pop music in general."
Twenty-five years later, have we truly embraced an intelligent strain of pop music? In our "American Idol" world, where sheen and showmanship are prized and prioritized, some days it can be hard to tell. But the head-meets-heart pop music of "So" has been a heritage to a certain sort of artist and is what keeps it a compelling, convicting listen for me even after my first few hundred hearings.
© Columbiatribune, by Aarik Danielsen