Thursday, October 11, 2007

No. 187: So

Band: Peter Gabriel
Album: So
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: A highly visual musician, Peter Gabriel's fifth solo album featured three songs accompanied by brilliant early music videos ("Don't Give Up," "Big Time" and "Sledgehammer"). Musically, the record is one of the highlights of the decade, filled with gothic ballads, atmospheric backing and social issue lyrics.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: On the strength of the record, I'd say it should be higher. "So" is Gabriel's high point and a soundtrack to a certain '80s people.
Best song: There are a slew of great songs on here. Let's say "In Your Eyes" is the great slow song and "Sledgehammer" is the great uptempo number.
Worst song: Despite its interesting theme, "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" is probably the weakest song on the record. Still, a good song.
Is it awesome?: Yes, absolutely.

There's something wonderfully iconic about "So," with its three video singles and a fourth song featured in a key 80s movie scene. Released in 1986, it has so much that made that decade what it was. There's the Motown renewal ("Big Time" and "Sledgehammer"), the leftist social justice music ("Don't Give Up," "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" and "Red Rain"), big videos ("Don't Give Up," "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time"), sweet love songs ("In Your Eyes" and "That Voice Again") and even a duet ("Don't Give Up"). All it's missing is a nerd getting the hot girl.


"Red Rain," "Don't Give Up" and "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" show Gabriel's social conscience. Gabriel clearly is a literate, socially interested person, as evidenced by the song "Biko" from his third record, but "So" ad more varied social themes. "Don't Give Up" can double as a romantic song, but it is mostly a song of man's struggle within his economic system as he cannot fit within it. His wife reassures him repeatedly, but it is of no counsel.

"Red Rain," the albums first track, is a reference to acid rain that had become a problem in the '80s. The song has the duel meaning of a village being punished for their sings (by a blood red rain) and the idea of acid rain being that punishment for us, as humans.

"We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" is sparse and haunting. A strong guitar comes in and out early, almost as an omen. Milgram's 37, of course, is a reference to Stanley Milgram's famous experiment which measured "the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience" (quoted from our good friends Wikipedia). The famous experiment of people blindly obeying authority is alluded to well in the song, as the haunting synths and Gabriel's soft voice make you question the ethics of when "we do what we're told." If nothing, just getting Milgram's name into people's minds is important.


One of the things that people forget about the famous scene in Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything" is that the scene isn't romantic. In the countless parodies, the man holding the boombox is pictured as a hopeless romantic, with some sad look in his eyes. That's not the case:

Cusack is defiant and angry. He's been hurt and he's not going away. It's quite striking, actually.

Of course, the song is romantic. It's kind of strange to think that it was written as a love song to Gabriel's girlfriend at the time, Patricia Arquette. It's an extremely tender song, based on a complex African beat and a slow bass line. Similarly, the ease of tenderness in Gabriel's voice is striking, as compared to the two other hits from the record ("Big Time" and "Sledgehammer").

My own thought is that "In Your Eyes," as cliched as it sounds, is one of the best love songs of all time. In addition to its interesting sound (Youssou N'Dour guests at the end), Gabriel's vocals are as effective an instrument as any.


"Sledgehammer" is probably Gabriel's best-known song, largely on the merits of its video. Fully animated, the video was done entirely in stop motion animation, with a full array of fruits, wood, trains, planes, and everything else under the sun float in and out of the frame as Gabriel's visage starts and stops with the song.

The animation, as compared to the CGI work of recent vintage, it doesn't look realistic. In the same way Pac-Man and the original Donkey Kong hold up today, "Sledgehammer" holds up today. The record

(Fun note: The dancing chickens portion of the video was animated by Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame.)

The video supersedes the song, but the song is fantastic, as well. An homage to the Stax soul sound, Gabriel uses a cadre of sexual metaphors (bees, pollination, sledgehammer, bumper cars, fruit and the Big Dipper. The beginning and ending theme, played on the shakuhachi flute is evocative and cool, again showing his world music passions.

Anyway, here's the video:


"So" is a great record. It really spans the gamut of 80s sounds, raising the level of each piece.

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