When Peter Gabriel’s So hit stores in the spring of 1986, it wouldn’t be unfair to call almost everything about the ex-Genesis’ fifth record a complete surprise. For one, the record had a title, boldly marked in the upper left corner as if a challenge to the reader. Moreover, the album sleeve showed not a Hipgnosis-created aberration of Gabriel – obscured by raindrops, jagged scratches, or photo manipulation that seemed to melt half his face off – but a Peter Saville-crafted black-and-white portrait of the singer, unadorned and, it seemed, uncertain, as if he knew he was taking a risk with the album at hand.
And that’s before the needle even went on the record. The eight songs (nine on compact disc) were a stirring leap forward from the dense, often esoteric pop Gabriel had perfected. It was just as quirky, to be sure – with Stax-worthy horn arrangements, lush Fairlight arrangements and otherworldly guest vocals from Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson and Youssou N’Dour – but it both aligned and put itself ahead of the pop trends of its age, thanks to captivating melodies from Gabriel’s pen and a panoramic production from Daniel Lanois, who’d set the tone of late ’80s rock as producer on U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree.
Now, 25 years and change later, the inconceivable whirlwind they call So has been given the laudatory mega-hyper-deluxe box set treatment (Real World PGBOX2), with four discs of music, two DVDs, a pair of vinyl LPs and a deluxe book, all in a fancy 12″ x 12″ box. There’s been considerable scrutiny over the So box from the moment details were announced; in particular, Paul Sinclair of Super Deluxe Edition led a chorus of fans bothered by the lack of the many non-LP B-sides and vintage remixes on the package. For a week, it was enough of a maelstrom for Gabriel and Real World to respond to an open letter from SDE (later adapted into notes about the So box presented in the program for Gabriel’s autumn Back to Front tour, which saw him perform So in its entirety with the core band members who committed the record to tape in 1985 and 1986).
As always seems to be the case, there is much that certainly could have been added to this box set to make it more complete, more exhaustive. But with about six hours of audiovisual content stored in the box, it’s just as worth a look at what is included as what is not. We begin as such after the jump.
The revolution of So in Peter Gabriel’s catalogue comes not as a flood, but quite literally as a rain shower, with Stewart Copeland’s distinctive hi-hat work on “Red Rain.” The same man who gave us “Intruder,” with its by now iconic cymbal-free, gated drum track by Phil Collins, was opening his musical lens up early; “Red Rain” is indicative of the varied, cinematic sound So pursues.
That’s not to say Gabriel abandons his more esoteric impulses altogether – one has only to refer to the mantra-like pairing of “We Do What We’re Told (milgram’s 37)” and “This is the Picture (excellent birds),” both of which closed the original CD, to consider where So picks up from, say, the fourth album. But that record would certainly never have had a “Sledgehammer,” nor anything quite like “Mercy Street” (arguably the best hidden gem on the album). So is its own animal – a conscious attempt of the artist to either stand closer to the line dividing him from other pop musicians of the age, or better yet, to bring that line closer to the Bath farmhouse he recorded much of the album in.
A listen to So DNA, the main bonus disc exclusive to this box set, indicates that Gabriel was and is still interested in exactly where that process bought him. Over an hour, he brings listeners through all nine songs on So as heard through fragments of demos and alternate takes and mixes, all trickily edited to the structure of the finished song. The general process for each song seemed to start the same way: Gabriel would sing scratch lyrics over keyboard lines and a synthesized rhythm track. (Given the self-proclaimed “frustrated drummer’s” penchant for percussion, particularly on So, it’s interesting to hear some songs crawl toward Jerry Marrotta or Manu Katche’s brilliant drum work, rather than exist in synthesized form from the get go.) Gradually in some cases, immediately in others (“Big Time,” “This is the Picture”), the puzzle pieces we’ve loved playing with on this album are put together.
While describing So DNA in mere sentences is a losing game – and including beloved flipsides like “Don’t Break This Rhythm” and “Curtains” would have certainly counted as part of the album’s DNA, too – those who know and love the album inside and out will have much to enjoy, both here and upon subsequent, comparative listens to the final product. This writer must confess to a broad smile when the horns finally burst onto “Sledgehammer,” or when Gabriel himself furtively sang a rough guide vocal for the refrain of “Don’t Give Up.” Unexpected moments abound, too, from Youssou N’Dour laying down a vocal for “That Voice Again” or a reedy saxophone twisting through the familiar, seductive “Mercy Street.” It’s a fascinating disc, to be sure – and one that gives the listener a deeper appreciation for what must be an exhaustive songwriting process for Peter Gabriel.
Coming tomorrow, we conclude our look through the So box with a trip through Peter Gabriel’s Live in Athens, a Classic Albums documentary and some vinyl offerings.