So is Peter Gabriel’s fifth studio album since he departed Genesis in 1975. I’ve been listening to his music for over 30 years, and this album is quite unlike the others he had done until this point. There are many adjectives to describe Peter Gabriel’s work prior to So: creepy, moody, paranoid, murky, unorthodox, angry, claustrophobic, brooding. Those words don’t apply here. Daniel Lanois’ production gives all the instruments room to breathe. It provides an ambience one doesn’t hear on other Peter Gabriel albums. There are loud songs, there are quiet songs. Instead of all gloom and doom like the “Melt” album or Security, there’s some happiness to be heard on So. Could it be that Peter Gabriel was having fun for once? There are songs on this album that everybody can like. That doesn’t mean that Peter Gabriel “sold out” – he hasn’t. There are still some somber bits [Don’t Give Up, Mercy Street], his experimental side is still present [This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds), We Do What We're Told (Miligram's 37)], but there are bits of levity as well [Sledgehammer, Big Time]. Absent [for this album anyway] are the long soundscapes like The Family and the Fishing Net [Security], as is the eerie mystery of Intruder [Melt].
Red Rain grabs the listener right away. After making four albums without any “metal” [cymbals and hi-hats] on them, the first thing you hear is Stewart Copeland’s hi-hat. Immediately you know this isn’t going to be a typical Peter Gabriel album. The sound of Tony Levin’s fretless bass is unlike anything I’ve ever heard on a PG album – you can hear it, and you can feel it. It isn’t buried in the mix like on previous efforts, and it isn’t a keyboard bass. Having heard what Tony Levin could do with King Crimson [Discipline, Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair] I thought his talents had been sorely underutilized – not so with Red Rain. What is it about? For years I thought “red rain” was a metaphor for nuclear fallout. This was the Cold War after all – the Russians had their missiles in Europe, and Ronald Reagan had his. And having read about it, it seems I wasn’t too far off the mark. Peter Gabriel said it was about an “apocalyptic dream” that he had, and he created music to match the mood. Red Rain is a very dramatic piece, and a great way to open an album.
Sledgehammer – Who knew that a white English guy could pay such a loving tribute to the Stax sound? The subject of this tribute? Sex! The song is full of clever turns of a phrase ["You could have a steam train / If you'd just lay down your tracks" and "Open up your fruitcake / Where the fruit is as sweet as can be"]. The Claymation video from the guys who created Wallace and Gromit is probably the best video ever made. Its popularity on MTV [I think it is their most-played video ever – a record that’ll never be broken since they don’t play music anymore] no doubt helped So’s sales rocket into the stratosphere. A big bonus – Memphis Horns alum Wayne Jackson plays on this. Nothing says “authentic” like a Stax tribute with one of the original Stax horn players.
Don’t Give Up – PG’s take on what it feels like to get laid off and how worthless one feels when he does. Kate Bush is wonderful, singing as a wife trying to keep up his spirits. He’s full of despair, she provides hope. This song reeks of Daniel Lanois’ ambience [a good thing].
That Voice Again – More excellent bass work from Tony Levin. I like how the song alternates between major chords on the verses and the chorus and minor piano chords on the bridge. What voice is he hearing anyway? Is it his conscience, or is it like Magnum PI’s “little voice” that always warned him of danger?
Mercy Street – Dedicated to poet Anne Sexton. PG wrote this after reading Anne Sexton’s posthumously published poem 45 Mercy Street. This piece of ambience is a very dark and haunting song. The guitar sounds like something Andy Summers would do on Ghost in the machine [Secret Journey, specifically]. Guitarist David Rhodes nailed Summers’ sound perfectly, just not as loudly.
Big Time – Son of Sledgehammer. The way the CD is sequenced, this song is in a good place to follow the somber Mercy Street. Where did that funky guitar come from? Who are you, and what have you done with the Peter Gabriel I knew? Underneath the dance music there is scathing commentary about conspicuous consumption. This is biting satire at its very best. Lyrically this song is the complete opposite of Don’t Give Up. This song has one of the coolest basslines one will ever hear on any song anywhere because drummer Jerry Marotta hits the strings on Tony’s Levin’s fretless bass while Tony Levin did the fretwork. Both are credited with “Drumstick Bass.” Years later Tony Levin would invent Funk Fingers, which are essentially drumsticks you can attach to your fingertips. I’ve seen him play with them – very cool.
We Do What We’re Told (Miligram’s 37) – “We do what we’re told” – wash, rinse, repeat. Very robotic, this hypnotic trance leaves me wondering how it would continue if hadn’t stopped after only 3 ½ minutes.
This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds) – Written with Laurie Anderson, who also appears here. Is there really a song here? Not that it matters because it sounds great on headphones. It sounds very mechanical to me, like the “song” that came immediately before it. I think it has the same trance-like qualities of We Do What We’re Told (Miligram’s 37).
In Your Eyes is a rarity in the Peter Gabriel songbook – a love song. I read somewhere it started out as a poem to his then-wife Jill. Cameron Crowe made an excellent choice when he picked this song for the Jon Cusack boom-box scene in Say Anything. Senegal’s Youssou N'Dour provided a vocal in his native tongue. I have no idea what he’s singing, but for 41 seconds as the song fades out he sounds like he’s expressing unbridled joy.
In Your Eyes
So is a rare album in that there’s nowhere you need to hit the “skip” button on your CD player [or iPod or any other MP3 player of your choice]. I can’t even make that claim for any Beatles album. It sounds like it was made in the 1980s, but I can’t hold that against Peter Gabriel because this album sounds great.