29 years ago, on May 19, 1986, Peter Gabriel released his fifth solo album, the simply titled So. These days, of course, the album is heralded as a classic but back then, in the long-ago fans and critics faltered for a moment at this purposefully commercial issue from the usually obscure, sometimes sunflower-headed weirdo.
Gabriel, the ex-Genesis-front-man had carved out a solo career with somewhat limited appeal. Die-hard fans and the kind of critics that sigh and scratch their eyeballs at cocktail parties championed his cause; he was truly a rarefied creature with a rarefied audience. Of course hookier tracks like “Solsbury Hill” and the politically charged “Biko” had piqued interest across a broader audience, but the typical Peter Gabriel release was esoteric, and often self-consciously opaque.
Having scored Alan Parker’s grimly-lit anti-war movie Birdy in 1985, it seemed that Peter Gabriel was set to pursue a still-mistier path toward the recesses of darker imaginings. However, a year later the artist emerged with an ambition to become more available. So was a vehicle whose intention was to offer broad access to all comers. With this album Gabriel stated that he wanted to do something more fun and “…to be a little less somber and mysterious”.
Producer Daniel Lanois, who would later tame the elemental forces of U2’s Joshua Tree returned to work with Gabriel, (Having also just worked on the Birdy soundtrack) and it’s the Canadian’s sensibility that measures the songs against the polished synths and shiny audio devices of 1986. If credit is to be given to the accommodating tones of the album it must be offered to Lanois, a man who clearly knew what would play well, not only in Prog-Rock appreciation societies but also on car radios, pool hall juke boxes, and on the mid-eighties must-have forum of MTV.
Whilst there were five singles released from the album, arguably there were only two straight Pop beacons lighting up the emotional peaks and valleys of the album. “Big Time” is a swaggering, splashy number that documents a small town boy’s idea of success. “I’ll be a big noise with all the big boys.” Given the charge of some contemporary critics that this album was a crass attempt at market success, it seems as if Gabriel was calling out his detractors before they could shoot first. There’s a mockery to the self-serious tone, redeeming what can be perceived by some folk as ugly ambition. How dare a serious artist harbor an ambition to be commercially successful in the music game?
The seductive charm of So is the album’s abject lack of snark, and the omnipresent charge of sincerity.
The second incendiary pop device is the weighty “Sledgehammer”, a track that boasts the most played video in all of MTV history, winning no less than 9 MTV Video Awards–a record that remains unbeaten. Directed by Stephen R. Johnson, the stop motion, mind-boggling images of microscopic semen and dancing chickens captured, perfectly, the angular funk and semi-surreal lyricism allowing Gabriel to bring his twisted perspective to the broadest audience. Reviewing this video, even now in a world of more refined techniques and technical savvy, is a mesmerizing experience.
Beneath the pop swagger, the delicate heart of Peter Gabriel beat stronger on So than on any previous album. The sensitivity of other tracks is all the more striking when placed in sequence, beside more obvious radio-fare.
“Don’t Give Up”, initially penned as a song for a solo voice became a collaboration with Kate Bush, who arrived to offer one of the best performances of her career. This tale of desperation and surrender as a man laments “I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name / but no one wants you when you lose”, is countered by a delicate mantra-like refrain from Bush and her transcendental assurance; “Don’t give up / ‘cos you have friends / Don’t give up / You’re not beaten yet / Don’t give up / I know you can make it good.” The joy of this track stands not only in the immediate access to matters of the heart and politics, but in that it avoids the clichés that lesser craftsmen would rely upon. It’s simply a beautiful deeper-than-love song, and by golly does young Peter look dreamy in the video.
It’s impossible to discuss So without mentioning “In Your Eyes”, a song that took on a second life beyond the confines of album or single release. Of course, the iconic boom-box wielding John Cusack is a figure that pleasingly haunts the eyeballs long after viewing that scene from Cameron Crowe’s 1989 movie Say Anything. There’s a whole bunch of myth and legend about how the track was chosen to appear in the movie–the simplest of which is that the tune was lifted from a playlist that entertained the guests at Crowe’s wedding, and was added to the scene in post-production. The track is bombastic and riddled with totemic images; “In your eyes / I see the doorway to a thousand churches / In your eyes / the resolution of all the fruitless searches.” It also has a pretty neat rhyming scheme that delivers wave after wave of relentlessly forceful affection–it’s a track that possesses the burning urgency of first love or movie love or lost love, or just love. With guest vocals from Senegalese Youssou N’dour, Gabriel further widened the door on the Western awareness of World Music–a cause that he first embarked upon as co-founder of WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance). With this album Gabriel reflected the ethos of his organization, to be embracing but non-definitive.
The seductive charm of So is the album’s abject lack of snark, and the omnipresent charge of sincerity. Propping up the lyrical themes of love, loss, isolation, politics, and hope, instrumentation across the album sounds exactly like 1986. No attempts were made to sound overly artful or to falsify timelessness; instead the artist and his producer encapsulate the internal and external landscape of the day and in doing so they deliver a classic.
IMAGES: Geffen Records