Peter Gabriel’s smash So album is, in a sense, the story of how an idiosyncratic artist who always seemed to keep pop stardom at arm’s length became a proper pop star. It wasn’t that Gabriel was uncomfortable with the limelight—all you need to do is type “Peter Gabriel Genesis costumes” into Google Image Search to uncover supporting pictorial evidence to the contrary. No, it’s more that after exiting Genesis in 1975 it’s as if Gabriel decided he could choose only one of two career paths, Artist or Star, and opted for the former. Anyone who can write a song as becoming as “Solsbury Hill” unquestionably has the chops to survive sales chart trench warfare, yet Gabriel resisted, naming his first four solo LPs after himself (his American label found his methodology so confounding it slapped three of them with alternate titles so record buyers could distinguish them) and adorning them with opaque artwork, and turning out fine singles that nonetheless were marked by an undercurrent of claustrophobic dread.
Though So was borne out of Gabriel’s decision that yes, he did want to be “larger than life” after all, the slate of reissues to mark the album’s the 25th anniversary (never mind that it originally came out in 1986) firmly reminds listeners that it was by no means a sell-out, a dilution, or a compromise. So is a record that’s unequivocally and unmistakably Gabriel in nature, as it draws together his post-prog canvases of sound, evocative and sometimes surreal lyrics, and deep love for world music in a series of tracks that run under the four-minute mark only once. It’s also no less considered or meticulously constructed—the recording of So spanned a full year, a length of production that is more clearly understood after hearing the “So DNA” tracks from the four-disc box set, where Gabriel’s many song drafts are edited together to illustrate their gradual evolution from surprisingly sketchy germs of ideas to their fully-realized final forms.
What set So apart from what had come before in Gabriel’s career was that it saw the singer dropping his guard, an action that allowed his music to become more approachable. Tellingly, the cover art at last featured a clear portrait of the man, and the album’s soul-indebted monster hits “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” were downright playful affairs that conquered radio airwaves as triumphantly as their inventive music videos dominated MTV. While “Big Time” pokes fun at the ‘80s’ upward mobility mindset, it’s more a gentle ribbing than a damning critique, not to mention a song that can be interpreted as a knowing acknowledgement of where its author was headed. When Gabriel sings “I’m on my way, I’m making it,” there’s no trace of irony or disapproval—instead, it’s a cheerful celebration.
And you know what? Good for him. He earned everything that came along with his ascent to the ranks of pop’s ‘80s elite. That’s because So is a magnificent record from top to bottom, rightly deserving of being the focus of the latest episode of the Classic Albums series (which incidentally, is included in the four-disc edition). Though there are hints and signifiers that nail So as a product of its time (the liberal application of slick mid-‘80s funk basslines, the extra slop of reverb on the drums), it has aged remarkably well, more so than many other big-budget records from the era.
So wouldn’t be half the record it is if Gabriel wasn’t such a talented songwriter blessed with such a versatile and emotive voice. Opener “Red Rain” taxis on the runway and then takes off spectacularly, soaring for five glorious minutes. “That Voice Again” is cut from a similar cloth, but contrasts its more uplifting sections with passages where the bass plumbs for the lowest notes it can find. The MTV staples “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” are big, bold pop singles that prove that being catchy doesn’t have to be synonymous with playing dumb. The Kate Bush duet “Don’t Give Up” finds hope in the most dispiriting of circumstances and imparts it to those who need it in the most gentle and understated of manners. Bush’s meek croak of the song title isn’t the most compelling melody to be found on a Peter Gabriel record, but the way she utters it—God, I imagine it could soften any bitter old miser’s hardened heart. And “In Your Eyes”—what is there to say about this beautiful, moving number that wouldn’t require another 500 words? I’ll give it a go and throw this out there: best song of the 1980s, full stop. Think about it. The only bum track is the Laurie Anderson collaboration, the self-consciously experimental “This Is the Picture”, whose utterances of “Excellent birds!” are goofy in a way that I doubt was intentional. Thankfully, the new releases maintain the superior tracklist order Gabriel implemented for a 2002 remaster where that song is pushed back and replaced as the album’s closing number by “In Your Eyes”, which was previously slotted midway through.
Both the three-disc edition—the ostensible subject of this review—and the four-disc “Immersion Box” are packaged with a previously unreleased recording of a 1987 concert in Athens, Greece (the box set also includes the concert footage on a DVD). Spread over two disc, the live set finds Gabriel’s voice in top form, firmly in the center of proceedings while still allowing space for the backing instrumentalists to dazzle. It’s amazing how immense the performance can feel in one instance, and how hushed and intimate it can be in another—sometimes it’s the interjection of gracious applause that’s the only reminder that Gabriel is playing to an audience. The mix of So material and past offerings in the setlist is further reminder that the album wasn’t too drastic a departure for the artist—the distance between “Intruder” (the song that birthed the ‘80s Drum Sound, just so you know) and “This Is the Picture” or “Mercy Street” isn’t that vast when placed in neutral surroundings. There’s a side to Gabriel that’s a bit skewed, a tad dark and unsettling, and it’s always represented in his work, even on his pop breakthrough. And as the show reaches its midpoint, he verges deeper and deeper into that side of himself, finding the downright scary synth tones of “The Family and the Fishing Net” at the bottom. Understandably, a respite is due, and so the second disc of the live set begins with “Don’t Give Up” and then follows with “Solsbury Hill”, Gabriel’s most radiant single. By concert’s end, the inspiring renditions of “In Your Eyes” and “Biko” banish the darkness for good and reclaim music as a method for imparting positive sentiments and goals to receptive ears—and judging by the throng of voices chanting along to “Biko”, they were mighty receptive indeed.
No, none of the 25th anniversary repackages of So include b-sides or those unforgettable music videos, and their absence is bound to disappoint some people. Gabriel has always taken a lateral approach to his output, and that serves So in good stead, as the extras that are incorporated aren’t merely included for completism’s sake. Instead, they enhance the original album, illuminating the craft that went into its creation and emphasizing the indelible nature of its contents. For that, not being able to watch the “Sledgehammer” video for the umpteenth time is but a small sacrifice.