progressive pop
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So was the fifth studio album by Peter Gabriel, the former Genesis lead singer, who split from the band in 1975 and launched a solo career. Gabriel co-produced the album along with Daniel Lanois (who has co-produced notable U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby). So, released in May 1986, was a huge commercial and critical success that transformed Gabriel from a niche experimenter to a global pop superstar.

In his earlier albums, Gabriel was known for his exploration of different themes, political concerns & musical styles including African and Brazilian rhythms. In So, Gabriel tries to resolve multiple dualities – artistic vs. commercial, traditional western rock vs. fusion of pop, soul, and world music, and lastly in the realm of personal vs. global humanitarian concerns.

The Songs

The album begins with “Red Rain,” a strong atmospheric rock song with excellent drum work by Stewart Copeland (from the band The Police) and Jerry Marotta. Gabriel sings in a pensive mood about multiple inspirations – his recurring dreams where people in the shape of bottles fall off a cliff and red-colored liquid would seep out as they smashed onto the ground, about a world plagued with violence (“I can’t watch anymore” and “I can’t make a single sound as you scream”) and a world which has gone through an environmental disaster with acid rain pouring all over.

Next up is “Sledgehammer,” the most popular song on this album that went on to become #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Gabriel tried multiple ideas on this song – the East Asian flute opening, the strong horn part by Wayne Jackson of Memphis Horns & the musical style inspired by R&B icon Otis Redding, whom Gabriel admired. It is a fun song, where Gabriel is trying to woo someone, and the lyrics are full of sexual imagery. “Sledgehammer” was the lead single of this album and was promoted with an innovative, animation music video that won multiple awards.

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Two songs in the album “Don’t Give Up” and “Big Time” although quite different in terms of music and content build on Gabriel’s exploration of duality – the inward, introversion of “Don’t Give Up” vs. the show-off, extroversion of “Big Time.” “Don’t Give Up” is a conversational duet between Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush where Gabriel sings about the despair of a person who is struggling to find a job in 80’s recession-hit Britain while Kate Bush tries to console & inspire the person to continue to believe in themselves and fight. “Big Time” is a funky dance number which is a cheeky satire on the materialism of the upwardly mobile folks at that time & their obsession with buying Big, Bigger, Biggest – house, car, vacation, money, etc. These songs seem relevant even today where you have a huge mass of people struggling with unemployment and falling income levels and a smaller section of the population that earns so much, they don’t know how to spend it. “Don’t Give Up” with its slow build up & excellent bass by Tony Levine is a haunting number that stays with you.

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“That Voice Again” explores the barriers between people, how judgment and harsh words drive people away. The song is high on emotion, with Gabriel singing phrases like “I want you close I want you near …. but I don’t want to hear that voice again” and “Only love can make love.” Gabriel along with David Rhodes on guitar, Levin on bass, and Manu Katche on drums provide a melodious number.

Gabriel’s emotional journey continues with “In Your Eyes” which is a beautiful song where Gabriel sings about only feeling complete in the eyes of one’s lover. Africa & Europe come together beautifully for this song with Gabriel’s lyrics inspired by Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia Basilica, Manu Katche, and Jerry Marotta combining on percussion and in the end, Youssou N’Dour sings the shorter Senegalese version.

Next, we reach “Mercy Street” which is one of the highlights of the album. Gabriel based it on Pulitzer prize-winning American poet Anne Sexton’s confessional poetry. In her poem “45 Mercy Street” Sexton writes about wandering through a dreamscape looking for an imaginary address. In his song, Gabriel synthesizes Sexton’s works and gives her the peaceful closure she never had in real life – “Anne, with her father is out in the boat, Riding the water.” Gabriel combines intelligence as a composer, sensitivity as a human to give us a dreamy, haunting song that pleads for kindness to oneself. Reminded me of a quote attributed to the Buddha “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” Brazilian percussionist Djalma Correa’s excellent work adds to the beauty of the song.

American psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority figures are the inspiration for Gabriel’s song “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”. It is a short, ghostly sounding interlude that once again highlights Gabriel’s concerns with duality – this time individual conscience vs. obedience to authority.

Gabriel performed a duet with Laurie Anderson “This is The Picture (Excellent Birds)” on January 1, 1984, for a television show called Good Morning, Mr. Orwell which was broadcast globally. It is a fun funky song with crisp, repetitive lyrics that closes the album.

Reception

So was an immediate commercial success and is considered Peter Gabriel’s best work. It has been critically acclaimed for its cutting-edge studio experimentation & richness of sound which was completely different from other artists of that time.

Legacy

So marked the transition when music from other cultures like Africa, Brazil, and Asia started figuring prominently in the studio work of Western rock musicians. Peter Gabriel’s intelligent, musically & emotionally layered album So paved the way for the evolution of true “World Music.”

Trivia

So was nominated for Album of the Year at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards 1987 but lost out to Paul Simon’s Graceland.

The “Sledgehammer” music video was voted as the best music video of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in 1993.

Peter Gabriel received the “Ambassador of Conscience” award from Amnesty International in 2008 for his humanitarian work over the years.

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