Review Summary: Gabriel: pop legend?
After four reasonably successful, yet understated releases, Peter Gabriel decided he would call-time on his cult status in order to hit the ‘big time’ – 1986 was his stage. ‘So’ marked the beginning and the end of his highly commercial career; he would later return to his experimental roots with ‘Us’ and ‘Up’. Before that, however, Gabriel and co set out on a musical journey incorporating fresh eighties pop, fused with a select-few experimental tracks to keep the new/hardcore Gabriel fans satisfied.
The album kicks off on a more sombre note with ‘Red Rain’, a song about Gabriel’s own feelings of vulnerability, and ever-present danger. The lyrics muster up imagery of a lonely man lost within his dreams – probably not the most obvious choice for a pop subject - but the song captures the imagination perfectly. The combination of the pulsating-bass and the drifting keyboards establish Gabriel’s vivid imagery without displacing the negative tone – A flawless beginning to an almost flawless album.
‘Red Rain’ paves the way for Gabriel’s most successful single to-date: ‘Sledgehammer’. This iconic song – the winner of the MTV’s 1987 Top Music Video Award – is the real deal. The song bounces and struts with a sexual urgency we have never seen from Gabriel. The band sounds like they’re having the time of their lives: the bass guitar pumps and slides over the fretboard, the guitar supplies a groove – and what a groove – that is impossible not to dance to. Hell, even the drummer, Manu Katche’, sounds like he’s taking a break whilst Levin, Rhodes and Gabriel take centre stage. After having seen Peter Gabriel perform this live, I can tell you: none of the energy is lost on the stage.
It is impossible to continue this review, without first of all, focusing on one of the most versatile bassists of all time: Tony Levin. The song, ‘Don’t Give Up’, exemplifies the man’s talent for diversifying the role of the bassist. The use of the Chapman stick adds an extra layer of depth to the songs sad, yet ironically uplifting theme. Levin utilises the lower notes to his advantage as he constructs a deceptively simple bass-line, amidst a rhythmically complicated beat – The man makes this song what it is. The bass-groove in the outro highlights his ear for suitably reserved technique.
The reasons for the albums phenomenal success are no mystery, it’s quite simple really, Gabriel recognises the audience he previously never appealed to. The crisp-clean production values received mixed opinions from critics, but the individual tracks would be lost in translation without the smooth production. ‘So’ is a product of 1986, intended for a mass audience: why turn away the average chart-loving fans with an album riddled with muddy production values?
In a 2011 interview, Gabriel mentioned, “I’d had my fill of instrumental experimenting for a while, and I wanted to write proper pop songs, albeit on my own terms.” After having listened to this album over multiple times, it is immediately clear that he succeeded. ‘So’ is easily the most accessible work of Peter Gabriel’s discography. Almost every song, in this reviewer’s opinion, could’ve been released as a single. Most of the songs rely on a straight forward pop structure, but this doesn’t make Gabriel forget his progressive origins, instead, he subtly implements them within his pop gems. Songs commonly stretch past the five-minute mark, grooves that would not have existed in the average pop record are prevalent here, two of the tracks are grounded firmly within the conventions of progressive-rock etc.
Peter Gabriel, being the genius that he is, knew exactly how to cater to the masses, and he also knew he’d succeed. ‘Big Time’ is concrete evidence of Gabriel’s conviction and confidence. ‘So’ is one of the most important pop records ever. The perfect blend of slow and groove-fuelled melodies helped propel this album to the top of the UK album chart in 1986, and rightfully so, Gabriel’s first proper commercial breakthrough was well overdue. Personally this is one of my favourite albums of all time; I loved it as a child, and it has stayed with me through adulthood. The 25th anniversary edition is a testament to the albums broad appeal and its poignant themes.