After the release of Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80), which fully exhibited his new found love for world music, Gabriel devoted his energies to the creation of World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD), an organisation devoted to the promotion of world music artists. To help fund the project in its initial years, fans were treated to a one-off Genesis reunion in late 1982 at the National Bowl, Milton Keynes; both Gabriel and Steve Hackett (who left the band in 1977) joined the band playing under the name Six of the Best. Gabriel went on to accompany David Bowie on his Let's Dance tour, pausing only to put out Plays Live (1983), culled from the tour of his fourth album. In 1985 Gabriel worked on the soundtrack to Alan Parker's Birdy (1985), produced by Daniel Lanois. A protégé of Brian Eno - who contibuted to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) - he would go on to produce both Gabriel's next album and U2's The Joshua Tree (1987).
So opens with the sound of a hi-hat, intricately played by Stewart Copeland, formerly of The Police. 'Red Rain' blossoms forth from it - and 'blossoms' is the word, because this is a sublime start. The first thing you notice is Gabriel's voice - Lanois has managed to capture it at its best, able to crest the high registers yet smoky, raspy and full of emotion. That is something which no Genesis record ever managed. More than that, though, this song is overflowing with emotion even without the delivery. The lyrics take their inspiration from a dream Gabriel had where he was drowning in a sea of red water, and the feeling of defenceless and vulnerability is well conveyed. Add the funky bass of Tony Levin and the sweet keyboards and you have an instant classic.
We now come, inevitably, to 'Sledgehammer', a track which is so overplayed that Gabriel tried to get MTV to pull it. It is almost infamous for the success it brought him, becoming his only US No.1, knocking Genesis off the top spot, and of course everyone remembers the innovative stop-motion video made by Aardman Animations, the brains behind Wallace & Gromit. So is it any good? Well, aside from the oh-so-fake shakuhachi flutes throughout, the short answer is yes. As I said in my review of Hit (2003, #72), the fact this is so overplayed and so 1980s prevents it from being a true five-star track, but it remains compelling in its Motown-esque beat, its suggestive lyrics and its bombastic rhythm section.
Onto something more serious. 'Don't Give Up' has a longer intro than on the single version, but it still features Kate Bush and still scores very highly. The production is crisp and the instrumental section is lush. The keyboards remain bright and Levin's 'funk fingered' bass playing adds a down-to-earth feel to this song about unemployment and dejection. The problem though is Bush; her range might suit the song, but her delivery just doesn't have the emotional clout to completely carry the mood. She is still in 'Running Up That Hill' mode and though it doesn't exactly ruin the song, it never really gels either.
'That Voice Again', co-written by guitarist David Rhodes, is the only song on here that comes to close to matching the brilliance of 'Red Rain'. Unlike 'Red Rain' it's bombastic, bouncy and packed with plenty of punch. And that's fine. But the beauty of this song is that manages to combine a hyperactive drum section (courtesy of Manu Katché) with the sensitivity and power of Gabriel's voice, which comes into its own amidst the shimmering keyboards. The harmonies are sweet, and the lyrics are heartfelt and meaningful. Perhaps it is a little long, but not enough to spoil the wonderful sensation you get from hearing it.
'In Your Eyes' is, again, a commercial sounding song, but unlike others of the day (Genesis included), this is not reduced to a weepy ballad by fancy effects and overzealous production. Instead the jangly keyboards serve as a foil to the world influences and the merry feel of the piece is brought to fruition. On the Secret World tour (1993) this track came into its own with the addition of Paula Cole's vocals, but here the solo from Youssou N'Dour and the creepily low vocals from violinist L. Shankar will do just fine.
From hereon in things get more downbeat and go downhill. 'Mercy Street' retains the cerebral, introspective core without the commercial trappings. The subject matter in question is the American playwright Anne Sexton, and the song copies its title from her 1969 play. It's not so much that this is inpenetrable; instead, the change in texture comes as a bit of a shock (on vinyl, it may have been less so, since this would have been the start of the second side). This is so quiet and acquired that it would seem more at home on Up (2002) than on this otherwise upbeat album.
Speaking of upbeat, 'Big Time' reassures us and returns us to something ressembling the first five songs. This great satire of the yuppie culture became an ironic hit and like 'Sledgehammer' featured an animated video. Its lyrics are a lot simpler than, say, 'Don't Give Up', but the continual emphasis on big allows them to flow well. What is more, the backing to this savaging of narcissism is bubbly, creating something so incredibly catchy you will struggle to keep your head still.
The last two tracks, sadly, fall short. 'We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)' is almost ghostly in its feel, which is appropriate considering its subject; the song is about the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960s which revealed that humans will generally obey those in authority out of self-preservation, even if their orders are of a most immoral nature. For the most part this is okay, it feels dark and shadowy - and then the mood is ruined by Gabriel's final, robotic lyrics; they feel disjointed and the whole thing suffers as a result. 'This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)' suffers from a similar problem, which as before derives from the female vocals. This time courtesy of co-writer Laurie Anderson, they sound twee and overly dramatic. If the cowbell doesn't drive you mad by the end of the first minute, then the sell-out simplicity of the verses surely will.
Because of the success which 'Sledgehammer' brought Gabriel, comparison must be drawn to his former bandmates, who were also at the height of their commercial powers. In this comparison, So comes out as the winner on so many levels; while Invisible Touch (1986) comes across as fake, devoid of any real emotion, and pandering to Phil Collins' solo success, So manages to create a more commercial sound than its predecessors while retaining so much in the way of substance. It may not be the most consistent of albums; things really do get uneasy in the second half as the more ponderous side of Gabriel emerges. However the quality of the first half is reason enough to own this album. Over 20 years after its release So still stands as a record which both defined the time in which it emerged and has survived the test of the following decades.