Peter Gabriel: So (SACD)

Brian James

Peter Gabriel


Label: SACD
US Release Date: 2003-04-29

In 1986, Peter Gabriel was thrust into the unlikeliest of positions. He had been such an excellent cult artist that he had simply outgrown his small space in the music world. In spite of his artier inclinations, he displayed a surprising knack for pop conventions, and as the mainstream became ever more interested in detailed electronic compositions, Gabriel found himself moved from the fringe to the cutting edge. His 1982 hit "Shock the Monkey" garnered enough attention that a big promotional push seemed in order for his next effort. After four years of what must have been very hard work, So appeared, giving Gabriel three big hits, and making him a darling of the then-cool MTV crowd. He may have later squandered all the pop credit he built up in the mid-'80s (intentionally so, one suspects), but for a brief, shining moment, Gabriel looked like he belonged at no other place than on top of the world.

From our vantage point some seventeen years on, So sounds quite a bit different than it did at the time of its release. What initially sounded like the opening salvo in a long and fruitful career as a pop superstar comes across now as a somewhat begrudged concession to the marketplace, one that Gabriel has staunchly refused to continue in the ensuing years. Today, Gabriel is as famous for his legendary indifference to commerciality as he is for any music he's ever made, and So is an odd and intriguing reminder that this guy was once a huge star.

As an album taken on its own merits, though, So is less interesting. It's really the only record in his catalogue that sounds like it, hardly surprising since it came four years after its predecessor and six years before its follow-up. As Gabriel's only real shot at mainstream mega-success, it promises great things, but aside from "Big Time" and "Sledgehammer", it doesn't deliver. ("In Your Eyes", So's other hit, has always been vastly overrated.) The kind of exuberance shown on the album's best moments isn't representative of the general mood, a sad thing indeed considering how transcendent that energy is. So has real significance for giving a few truly great songs to the world, but as a listening experience, it hasn't aged all that well and leaves even more to be desired today than it did in 1986.

The next time we heard from Gabriel on 1992's Us, it felt far more difficult and intricate than we had come to expect from Gabriel, but most of the tracks on So would fit perfectly well alongside "Blood of Eden" and "Washing of the Water". At his best, Gabriel would write a great pop song and then add layer upon layer of juicy detail, but at his worst, he would ignore the first step and drag the tempo down to an unbearably slow crawl. It's at these times that he sounds less like a pop musician than a scientist, experimenting with sounds far too nuanced for anyone else to care about. With such a patina of intellectualism, most people of moderate sense and sensitivity are afraid to speak out against these tendencies, but it's hardly unfair to demand some energy and fun in pop, especially from someone with a well-earned reputation for delivering them in such graceful and smart ways. What So offers instead is drastically less satisfying.

The album hits its low point with its closer, "This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)", a duet with Laurie Anderson. Theoretically, this should be one for the ages, but instead, it's a boring slog through the combined pretensions of two people whose ability to prevent themselves from teetering over into self-parody is utterly undone in each other's presence. Since the credit is split evenly between the two of them, it's impossible to peg the blame solely on one or the other for such melodramatically sung lines as, "Flying birds / Excellent birds / Watch them fly, there they go", but it's tempting to imagine Anderson seducing Gabriel away from vulgar pop to the dark side of Meaningful Art. She may not have actually done that, but it sounds like someone or something did around the time of So. He gave his last great offerings to the pop world while simultaneously signaling that he wasn't very interested in giving much else to it. As he continues to hover just beyond its boundaries, So looks increasingly like the regrettable moment he decided to forsake its joys for the questionable rewards he's provided since.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less

Multi-tasking on your smart phone consumes too many resources, including memory, and can cause the system to "choke". Imagine what it does to your brain.

In the simplest of terms, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen's The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is a book about technology and the distractions that often accompany it. This may not sound like anything earth shattering. A lot of people have written about this subject. Still, this book feels a little different. It's a unique combination of research, data, and observation. Equally important, it doesn't just talk about the problem—it suggests solutions.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.