Peter Gabriel — So (1986)

So here we are with another album I rather like, from an era I really like. Peter Gabriel was about on top of his game here, but he padded out this album a little too much. When I want to listen to a Peter Gabriel album, it ends up being “Melt” (properly known as “Peter Gabriel III”), but when I want to hear a good Peter Gabriel song it ends up being one of the ones off the first half of So.

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Probably his worst album cover

God, what an era, though. Peter Gabriel, U2, Paul Simon and many other great acts were at their absolute zenith in a stretch of two or three years in the late 80’s, with meaningful lyrics and innovative music, which is all one can really ask.

(I think it’s telling that Lorde, the only pop singer I can think of that has had any success in the last five years without completely selling out and making bog-standard EDM, really seems to dig the late 80’s. When she grows up a little more she might usher in a new period of this kind of innovation. She certainly has made it clear that that’s her ambition, though not in so many words. I’ll probably never review a Lorde album, so here’s me saying I like her work for what it is, and I like her a lot as a person.)

So is arty. I’ll give Peter Gabriel’s detractors that. It certainly represents an thorough-going attempt to make an artistic statement, and it can really come off as too arty. I’d almost say “pretentious,” but I’m tired of anti-intellectual people using that word to dismiss anything that resists casual analysis or makes a far-reaching statement, so it has rather a bad aftertaste for me. To show you what I mean by “arty,” though, here’s a prime example: the title is Gabriel’s act of spite against his label, who wanted him to give his next album an actual title. (The prior four were all self-titled; even the numbers were added later to differentiate them.) Unwilling to give them a commercially viable title, he titled it with one of the shortest words in the English language. Yeah, maybe pretentious isn’t too strong a word for that. At least he didn’t title it with the (typographically) shortest word in English, “I.”

But how’s the music?

The album starts with a refinement of his prior sound, with an energetic and intriguing rhythm on the drums and a rich, indefinable instrumental texture a few seconds after that. A few seconds later he comes in himself with the vocals. He tells us openly that the song is about a dream. It’s a bold choice and one that rarely works (though it works for Neil Young sometimes). The details of his dream are cryptic and have the ring of an actual dream, but I can almost imagine it’s about some moment of violence happening on the news at the time he wrote the song. Hell if I know what, though. Take your pick, honestly. The actual songwriting is solid, suits the musical style, and Gabriel has a simple, strong melodic voice that conveys a lot of emotion. The music, overall, has a lot of the earmarks of the 1980’s synthesis of world influences. I like it, but it’s not just a mind-blowing song. 7/10.

Yeah, Sledgehammer is a dick joke.* It has some funny moments, but the Japanese flute in the intro is out of place and the whole thing seems like an attempt by a white Brit to sing what we call the dirty blues. He can’t pull it off, whatever the charts said. 5/10. I will admit that, since it’s the only Peter Gabriel song they play on my local rock station, I’m tired of it and probably biased. If you like it, we can still be friends.

*So much so that it bears mentioning that my friend Steven, a prude, absolutely the last person to make a crass joke, once heard this song and said in a terribly silly and bad Cockney accent “Is he… is he talking ’bout his genitals?”

“Don’t Give Up” is weird as hell. It’s a duet between Gabriel and highly individual pop singer Kate Bush, in which his character is an unemployed man seemingly at the point of suicide. Her character might be his wife or a relative, and she tells him “don’t give up/I know you can make it good.” It’s an oddly life-affirming ballad, even if it doesn’t have any moments of truly stellar songwriting, and Kate Bush has a great voice for this type of song. 8/10.

Ah, “That Voice Again.” This is in my top five Peter Gabriel songs. It’s percussion driven, has some nice, airy piano (probably courtesy of Gabriel himself), and some dark synth. Honestly, most of the song would work if it was just drums and vocals, which is saying something. The high-hat work here is virtuosic; without exaggeration, it’s top-tier playing. And to think that Peter Gabriel has a reputation for hating cymbals! If I remember right, he was on record even before this as saying that he wouldn’t have them on his records at all if left to his own devices.

The drums are played, as far as I could find out, by a French session drummer of African descent called Manu Katché, who also played with Sting and Satriani, and who probably deserves to be very famous. Maybe his solo career is well-known in France. I dunno.

(Did Manu Katché also play with Manu Chao or did I make that up? If not he totally should. How the actual hell do I know more than one French musician active in the world music scene named Manu, anyways?)

And the song is about being neurotic and overthinking everything in a relationship. Or is it about literally hearing voices? Gabriel cultivates the ambiguity, I think. At any rate, I always took it as a song about being a neurotic guy who can’t say what he means to the girl because he’s too insecure. And what frustrated passion Gabriel puts into the vocals! Honestly, he sounds like it’s about five minutes after dawn out on the savanna somewhere, and two minutes after the invention of music. There’s this fire and rawness to it that I’ve never heard in other Western music. His voice doesn’t sound like he’d be as good of a vocalist as he is. 9/10. 

Next comes perhaps Gabriel’s best-known song, “In Your Eyes.” Yeah, it’s a creature of two worlds. It’s an 80’s love ballad, with literally everything that implies. The same blood runs through the veins of “Sister Christian,” by Night Ranger, as blasphemous as that sounds. But then it’s also a product of the 80’s world music craze, with everything that implies. So what does Gabriel make of the raw materials?

Well, it’s better than “Sister Christian;” that should be an uncontroversial statement. I’ve always liked it, mainly on the strength of the anthemic chorus. And now that I give it a close listening, I hear African drumming or at least some poly-rhythms, as well as some other complexities beyond the pop instrumentation I had always heard. While I may never be able to shake its association with John Cusack in “Say Anything,” it’s a fantastic song on its own. The chorus may be cryptic and somewhat… I don’t know, overwritten, maybe, but like Bono around the same time, Gabriel sells it, he really does.

(Now I really want to hear “Sister Christian” with world rhythms and a vocalist of Gabriel’s caliber. I need to call my band.)

I don’t know, though, there’s some part of this song’s appeal that’s bound up in my own emotional history. When I first heard this song, when I first put it in a mixtape, coming hissy and trebly off some cheap boom-box, when I listened to it while driving a slammed-out pickup truck on Highway 49 (and hell yes, the tape is in my desk drawer next to the pens with the track-list written on it in Sharpie)… at that time, I was 17, I thought Bob Dylan was profound, I could still stand Journey, and I had my mind stuck on a girl, one of those crushes that didn’t bear examining even at the time. Still, for three months in 1987 I was obsessed. I thought of her when I listened to “In Your Eyes,” I thought of her when I listened to “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” and probably when I listened to “Any Way You Want It.” So I don’t know what’s real and what is the memory of hormone-driven teen lust. I think critically it’s a pretty great song, but I can barely hear it anymore. 8.5/10?

And there’s “Mercy Street.”  This song was informed by a book of Anne Sexton’s poetry.* I don’t know what it’s specifically referencing, but it’s very nice and atmospheric, and has some touching lines. I consider it a sort of sequel to “Lead a Normal Life” off of “Peter Gabriel III,” in that it deals with mental illness in a very sensitive way. They’re similarly sparse instrumentally too. 7/10

Image result for anne sexton
Anne Sexton

*If you don’t know, Sexton’s story goes about like Sylvia Plath’s, and I, for one, couldn’t hope to tell their poetry apart in a blind test. I don’t mean to demean or belittle either of them or make light of mental illness, but I just don’t know what the criteria for good modernist poetry is, and I know I feel sad if I try to read either one.

But after “In Your Eyes,” the album was already winding up prematurely and to me, “Mercy Street” feels like the outro to the album.

And then comes “Big Time.” It’s an instrumentally bland rock song from the point of view of a rock-star who’s consumed by “bigness,” which is to say that everything around him must be as monumental as his ego. I do like his jab at religious hypocrisy, when the character says “I pray in a big church… my heaven will be a big heaven… and I will walk through the front door.” Really, though, Sledgehammer was all the pointless bombast this album needed. 4/10.

And then Gabriel gets too arty for his own good, as happens towards the end of every Peter Gabriel album. “We Do What We’re Told” is supposedly about the Milgram Shock Experiments, a fascinating psychological study done in the mid-20th century on people’s obedience to authority. People were told that it was a study of memory and learning under threat of punishment: the participants, so they were told, would administer increasingly powerful electrical shocks to a subject in another room whenever the subject got an answer wrong in a memory test, as an incentive to help the subject memorize the answers. In reality, the subject was just a tape recording being stopped and started, on which a man informed the participants that he had a bad heart, screamed whenever the participant had just “shocked” him and demanded to be let out of the study after suffering a certain number of shocks. The researcher would then inform the participant that he or she must continue to administer the shocks, in increasingly authoritarian tones of voice.

If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you probably know what the data showed: most people will administer potentially fatal shocks to what they believe is a man at risk for heart attacks, if a man in a white coat and a tie tells them to in the right tone of voice. There’s controversy, naturally, as to whether this was an ethical study, given that people thought they were killing somebody, and as to whether the data is contaminated by people who suspected the experiment was fake. All of this is fascinating and perhaps troubling, if the results are valid, but does it translate to a good song? Nope. You wouldn’t have known any of this from the song, which plays as a slower and duller repeat of “Mercy Street” with fewer lyrics. Actually, I think it’s just the title being repeated over and over again. It’s pretentious rubbish that barely registers as music with me. 4/10.

And the last song is… weird. Decent, but weird. Laurie Anderson does guest vocals and I think guest writing on this song. If you don’t know who that is, imagine Peter Gabriel as a woman, but with the self-awareness knob not only turned to zero, but actually pulled off and thrown in the studio trashcan. A lot of people know her only as Lou Reed’s eccentric wife, but she actually had a career, shockingly, much weirder than his. Back in the day, she had a thing shaped like a violin, but instead of strings it had a magnetic head from a tape player where the bridge would have been. She strung a violin bow with tape and recorded all kinds of weird samples on it. Apparently, she could actually play music on it by moving these samples past the head at various speeds (and thus pitches). I don’t know if she still uses it, though, because if I remember right, she later made some kind of motion sensitive wizard staff that plays samples. I swear.

So this song is… nice, actually. It’s a lot of double-tracked vocals from the two of them and not a lot of instrumentation. I have no clue what it’s about and probably, neither do they. 7/10.

Image result for soundtrack for the movie more
It’s high time, Cymbaline.

I’m forced to conclude that this is another “glorified EP” album, where the album, minus filler and garbage music, equals a perfectly good EP. “Soundtrack to the Movie More” by Pink Floyd is the archetypical example for me, with the difference that it doesn’t claim otherwise. It’s a soundtrack album, so I didn’t expect 42 minutes of song-like content; I expected atmospheric noises and half-assed jams, and got them, but there was also almost a full side of fully-formed songs. Honestly, I view every song on More as a gift, unasked and undeserved–the fact that there was more early Floyd I had never heard was in itself a gift when I first heard that album.

So, however, claims to be an album and delivers practically an EP’s worth of content. Some of it is stellar content, but it’s still not enough to make the album stand on its own.

Full album average: 6.81/10
Penalty for even including “Big Time:” -0.5
Bonus points for two guest vocalists that deserved to be on more songs, and some fantastic studio musicians: +1
Best Song: “That Voice Again,” with “In Your Eyes” as the immediate runner-up.
Worst Song: “Big Time”
Final rating: 7.3/10

All content reviewed here is the property of its respective owners, all images  claimed under fair use, all views and opinions mine.

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