Peter Gabriel never took the easy road toward pop stardom, which makes it all the more remarkable that he made it there at all. From his earliest days fronting art rock pioneers Genesis all the way through to a worldly solo career that’s touched upon seemingly every genre scattered across the globe, Gabriel has incorporated lots of different things into his recipe for success, but stagnant formula hasn’t been one of them.
But it took the release of So in 1986 for Gabriel to bring the wide swath of mainstream listeners on board with his expansive musical worldview, and listening to the album’s reissue more than 26 years later, it’s still not hard to see why it was so successful in elevating the singer’s career. The reissue, which covers three discs’ worth of live tracks and b-sides in addition to the record’s nine tracks, should put the record back on the front burner for fans, especially those old enough to remember John Cusack proudly hoisting his boombox.
First, the record itself. As strong as the nine songs that make up So are on their own merit, the record benefits as much, maybe more, by the addition of Daniel Lanois behind the boards as it does the music. Gabriel’s musical reach is matched by Lanois’ textured production and uncanny ear for ambient detail, and one compliments the other perfectly. “Red Rain” opens the album, building slowly over a chorus of drums, subtle synth, and delicate piano. The track sounds like a textbook product of its era, but like the rest of So, it bests most mid ’80s pop rock fodder. “Sledgehammer” at this point needs no introduction, but it’s worth noting the track remains as much a singular achievement of its time now as it did in 1986. “Don’t Give Up”, complimented nicely on the chorus by Kate Bush’s delicate vocal delivery, uses its loose structure and sense of space effectively, while “In Your Eyes” brings Gabriel’s world music leanings around full circle, amounting to one of the finest pop songs of its era.
But while So carries a fairly heavy weight, moving about with moody vulnerability, the record isn’t without its lighter moments. “Big Time”, Gabriel’s satirical stab at the decade’s unapologetically self-serving “me” culture, pumps along with obnoxious materialistic swagger. While short on actual songs, Gabriel succeeds in creating an album big on ideas and creative ambition.
Revisiting the record’s core nine tracks makes for a nice trip down memory lane, but the extras help fans re-imagine the album. A slew of tracks recorded live in Athens in 1987 bring many of the record’s studio tracks to life onstage, as well as other Gabriel favorites such as “Solsbury Hill”, “Shock The Monkey”, and “Games Without Frontiers”. Gabriel’s live show has always worked to give his music that extra dimension, especially as the scope of his work expanded and became more theatrical over the years. The crisp, clear production captures the energy and enthusiasm of his classic work vividly, complementing the studio tracks nicely and giving them an impassioned boost.
In short, So is that all-too-rare record that manages to have it both ways, earning its richly deserved critical and commercial respect without giving so much as an artistic inch. It’s a record that outright challenges the conventional wisdom among suits and major label big wigs that pop music has to pander and take shortcuts to be successful, that audiences aren’t sophisticated or savvy enough to pick up on more nuanced musical styles. So might not need the reinforcement, as it still stands on its own two feet as one of the consensus best records of the ’80s, but it’s still nice to see a record continue to get its due more than two decades later.
Essential Tracks: “Red Rain”, “Sledgehammer”, and “In Your Eyes”