When Peter Gabriel announced his departure from Genesis in 1975, a two-part prognosis seemed reasonable. Without the flamboyant antics of its frontman — who might perform dressed as a gigantic sunflower one night and a pyramid-headed psychedelic druid the next — Genesis would founder, while Gabriel would soar toward glam-rock status of Bowie-esque proportions.
Of course, in those days, nobody was banking on Phil Collins’s emerging from behind the skins to become the multiplatinum teddy bear of Eighties pop. Under the influence of Collins’s mainstream sensibility, Genesis wound up selling better than ever, while Peter Gabriel enjoyed cult status and the occasional hit — “Salisbury Hill,” “D.I.Y.,” “Shock the Monkey” — though his string of albums, often named Peter Gabriel, endeared him primarily to critics and connoisseurs. So, as So does a sleek power glide to the top of the charts, one is not so much shocked as pleasantly surprised, and somewhat relieved, if only because the popularity of the record indicates a taste for elegance and intelligence in the sterile corridors of AOR.
Like its title, So seems initially unprepossessing — ideally, though not cynically, suited to lite airwaves. The first layer of the record — flawless high-tech production by Gabriel and U2 producer Daniel Lanois (who also plays guitar and tambourine on some of the album); insinuating melodic songcraft; bittersweet, dreamlike ambiance — is admirable, like a gem with all its edges beveled to a fine sheen. It is precisely this seamless quality that makes So so easy to listen to and yet initially obscures the fact that the album is illuminated by an inner light of subversion, an acknowledgment of the emotional tug of war lying beneath the surface of day-to-day reality.
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So opens with Gabriel standing in a shower of “Red Rain.” A descending melody line acts as a soothing metaphor for an apocalyptic image. “I come to you with defenses down,” he confesses, “with the trust of a child.” He moves from this position of vulnerability to a posture of sexual aggrandizement on the swaggering “Sledgehammer,” an irresistible dance number made all the more remarkable for its tempo: it moves with a becalmed stride, more of a relaxed canter than the gallop of the stud. This clip-clop effect acts as an ingenious counterpoint to the arrogant stance of the song’s protagonist.
The bravado of “Sledgehammer” is undercut by the solemnity of “Don’t Give Up,” in which Gabriel outlines the despair of “a man whose dreams have all deserted.” In this one, Gabriel is haunted and defeated, acknowledging his frailty. A mournful melody is interrupted when a ray of hope — embodied by Kate Bush — penetrates the gloom. “Don’t give up,” she breathes with the voice of life itself, “‘cos you have friends.” Every time Gabriel proffers a reason for surrender, Bush answers him back with a litany of comfort. “Rest your head,” comes her simple advice, “you worry too much.”
He seems to find what he’s looking for “In Your Eyes,” perhaps the closest thing to a conventional love ballad Gabriel has ever recorded, though what he sees in her eyes is symbolic and Graillike in the extreme: “In your eyes/I see the doorway to a thousand churches/In your eyes/The resolution of all the fruitless searches.” The pomp and pretentiousness of such a sentiment might collapse under its own weight were Gabriel not shrewd enough to underscore the song with a roiling pancultural jamboree of scat featuring guest vocalist Youssou N’dour.
Gabriel dedicates the wistful and melancholy “Mercy Street,” in which he draws parallels between religion and sex, to the late poet Anne Sexton. On “Big Time,” which with “Sledgehammer” provides comic relief to balance the LP’s moody ruminations, Gabriel lays down one of the funniest brags in pop history. Everything about the song is larger than life, larger than myth even. It possesses the cocky self-assurance of the hick on his way to the big city where he’s gonna be somebody:
The place where I come from is a small town
They think so small
They use small words –
But not me
I’m smarter than that
I worked it out
I’ve been stretching my mouth
To let those big words come right out.
Here the tone is carnivallike, the music a pumped-up hurdy-gurdy of excess. Everything in Gabriel’s universe inflates in this one: his house gets bigger, his belly gets bigger, his bank account gets bigger, and of course, “the bulge in his big, big, big …” gets bigger.
Gabriel sums everything up with a note of humble resignation on “We Do What We’re Told.” The song is a brief sigh at the realization that we are programmed by forces outside our control and that this is what ultimately unites us and separates us from each other.
So is a record of considerable emotional complexity and musical sophistication. Beneath its disarming simplicity and accessibility is the voice of an artist who does what his heart tells him to do. That So would finally bring Peter Gabriel commercial success is an extremely positive sign for the acceptability of intelligence on the airwaves and in pop music in general.