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.