Monday, 18 June 2012
82 So - Peter Gabriel
Purchased : April 1988
Tracks : Red Rain / Sledgehammer / Don't Give Up / That Voice Again / In Your Eyes / Mercy Street / Big Time / We Do What We're Told
Now that I had some money in the bank I could satisfy one consumer urge which was to join the Britannia Music Club as regularly advertised in the pages of Radio Times. This was one of the three bargain purchases made through their introductory offer.
We're now back to catching up on the albums released during my period of penury. "So" was Peter Gabriel's fifth solo album ( not counting the Birdy soundtrack two years earlier ) and he was under a bit of pressure to deliver. His fourth self-titled LP in 1982 hadn't contained any hits and therefore didn't sell particularly well, not enough to finance his losses on the too-far-ahead- of its-time WOMAD festival and he'd been forced to do a reunion concert with Genesis to ward off his creditors.
I had been moderately interested in him over the years. "Solsbury Hill" and "Games Without Frontiers" were both favourites and I always listened when his records were played on the Annie Nightingale show but a lingering punk snobbery had perhaps prevented me investigating any closer. The run of singles from this LP in 1986-7 broke down that barrier.
The last of them kicks off the album. "Red Rain " is a long, epic track seemingly about acid rain but also referencing Gabriel's previous intimations of ecological catastrophe. It is plagued by eighties production values with Jerry Marotta's cavernous drums too high in the mix but is saved by a consummate vocal performance from Gabriel moving from searing indictment early on to weary resignation by the close. The Police's Stewart Copeland guests on hi-hat simulating rainfall throughout the song.
It's followed by his monster hit "Sledgehammer" which made him an international star reaching number one in the US and attracting multiple awards for its semi-animated video. The music is heavily influenced by Stax and features Wayne Jackson from the original Memphis Horns on trumpet although it's slow. grinding white funk rather than sixties soul. Gabriel brings his tortured persona to singing about sex and relationships with a variety of sexual metaphors aided by P P Arnold and Dee Lewis on backing vocals. It's perhaps a little over-familiar now but remains impressive.
It was followed as here by "Don't Give Up" his duet with Kate Bush, an overtly political song about the despair caused by unemployment and the balm offered by friends and family as voiced by Bush. Musically under-stated with Tony Levin's limpid bass and Manu Katche's soft percussion bubbling underneath the hazy synth chords. A piano comes in for the middle eight where Gabriel rouses himself to a roar of defiance before slipping back to resignation in the final verse - "so many men no one needs". The ominous coda after Bush's final lines suggests no easy resolution. There was it must be said some critical resistance to the idea of two well-established artists from the relatively unscathed Home Counties singing about unemployment but it's always sounded convincing to me.
The first of the album's non-singles closes out side one."That Voice Again" caused Gabriel some problems with a number of re-writes and he wasn't fully satisfied with the finished article. I share those reservations. There is a decent song about the poison of past words hindering a reconciliation, trying to fight its way past the horrible 80s production strongly reminiscent of ( Gabriel acolytes ) Tears For Fears's ungainly Mother's Talk but it doesn't quite make it. The sparse verses deserve a better chorus ( which in its over-produced vaguely funky way veers too close to a certain ex-bandmate's solo work ) and the meandering instrumental break which delays the arrival of the second chorus is a strange artistic decision.
Side Two commences with "In Your Eyes" which wasn't a single in the UK but a hit twice over in the US through its use in a Cameron Crowe film. It's a straightforwardly honest love song built on a dense percussion track from Katche and Marotta. Gabriel gives another consummate vocal performance helped out by Youssou N' Dour towards the end ( Jim Kerr is among the backing vocalists on the chorus ). The right ingredients are in place but I find it melodically dull and over-polished.
"Mercy Street" was inspired by and dedicated to the bipolar American poetess and eventual suicide Anne Sexton who used the phrase in the title of a poem, a posthumous collection and a 1969 play. The poem is a crushingly sad expression of realising the impossibility of returning to childhood security ( which may never have existed anyway ). This isn't the place to delve further into Sexton's work. Gabriel intermingles references to the poem with biographical detail such as the attempts of various doctors and a priest who tried to help Sexton in her struggle with mental illness. Musically it uses the same formula ( though different personnel ) of muted percussion and bass and sombre keyboards as "Don't Give Up"
and you're almost expecting him to come in with "In this proud land we grew up strong" at one or two points. However it is a good song in its own right though too subdued to be a single.
The final single on the album ( 3rd in UK release order ) is "Big Time" which vies with a track discussed in the very next post to be the record which best encapsulates the yuppie culture of the latter half of the eighties. Performed by largely the same crew as on "Sledgehammer" ( with the notable substitution of Copeland for Katche ) the music is more informed by contemporary funk somewhere between Prince and Level 42 and the brass men are barely used. Gabriel sings in character as an arriviste who spends his new wealth on vulgar excess and it's more succint and effective than anything Paul Weller came up with during that decade.
The album ends with "We Do What We're Told ( Milgram's 37) " inspired by the famous psychological experiments which proved that ordinary people were more than willing to administer electrical shocks to each other if instructed. Gabriel expressed dissatisfaction with it saying it could have been developed further and again he's right. There's little more to it than a doomy chant over a synth-pop doodle that marries early OMD synth sounds with the jerky percussion of Yazoo's Ode To Boy. It's a curiously insubstantial way to end the LP.
In the 90s "So" would regularly appear in "Classic Album" round-ups but in recent years it seems to have been quietly dropped from the "canon". Perhaps this is partly due to Gabriel's subsequent output being so meagre and largely disappointing ( "Digging In The Dirt" being the magnificent exception ). I think it falls a little short of being a classic but for its time it was a very good attempt.