So, recorded in 1986, is the fifth studio album and the first non-eponymous one by the British musician Peter Gabriel (ex- Genesis). So was a very successful album and in many ways a turning point in his career as a solo artist. So far his concerts mainly attracted a masculine audience, but thanks to this record many more women attended his shows. Thanks to big hits like Sledgehammer, Don't Give Up and Big Time, all derived from So, Gabriel could easily fill big stadiums. He went approximately from 3.000 to 40.000 visitors! In 2011 it was 25 years ago that the album saw the light of day and therefore Gabriel's record company released So Special Edition, a 3CD set to celebrate this milestone. I got hold of this special release and before telling you more about the content first some facts about this record.
Many songs on So, that reflect a more conventional pop-writing style, became radio hits while others still maintain Gabriel's dark, brooding sense of experimentalism. In 2011 he explained: “I'd had my fill of instrumental experimenting for a while, and I wanted to write proper pop songs, albeit on my own terms.” So was the second album produced by the Canadian artist Daniel Lanois, who brought many of his own ambient sensibilities into this record. Many of the tracks also continued to showcase Gabriel's interest in world music, with Gabriel commenting: “I think this album is nourished by so many varieties of black music, and not just soul and blues; there's stuff from Africa, Brazil, Cuba and Jamaica.” So is to date Gabriel's best-selling album, charting at number #1 in the UK Album Chart and number #2 in the American Billboard 200. It was certified triple platinum in the UK and five times platinum in the USA.
So opens with Red Rain¸ a strong up-tempo piece inspired by a dream Gabriel had about swimming in a sea of red water. The lyrics vividly depict dream imagery reflecting a sense of vulnerability. Of all the tracks on So, Gabriel considers Red Rain to be one of his favourites and I agree with him; it's still my favourite song as well. The second track is his most popular hit single Sledgehammer, influenced by Motown and world music. It's also famous for using the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. Gabriel described it as 'my chance to sing like Otis Redding.' In 1987 the video for Sledgehammer won MTV's Top Music Video Award and Best British Video at the Brit Awards. Don't Give Up is a duet with Kate Bush. It was originally written to perform with Dolly Parton, but she refused to work with Gabriel. The song deals with a man's devastation due to economic hardship containing the support and wise advice of his wife, sung by Bush in the refrain.
Next is That Voice Again, a nice and happy up-tempo tune followed by In Your Eyes that became one of the most performed songs during Gabriel's live shows. It often featured Youssou N'Dour and other African singers. In a way it was a kind of African anthem because of the many influences from that continent. Mercy Street is dedicated to poet Anne Sexton; it's named after her eponymous play from 1969. This excellent mellow piece belongs to the highlights on So. Big Time strongly resembles Sledgehammer and is meant to be a caricature of the economic success of the eighties. It was also accompanied by a video in the vein of Sledgehammer, though with less popularity. The penultimate track called We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37) is a short mellow track with the beat played by a rhythm box. The title refers to the 37th out of 40 compliant subjects of Milgram Experiment 18.
The album ends with This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds) featuring the vocals of co-writer Laurie Anderson. This track wasn't included on the original vinyl release, but was added to the audio cassette and CD editions. Anderson had previously recorded a different arrangement of the song Excellent Birds for her album Mister Heartbreak (1984) that featured Gabriel's vocals. When the album was remastered in 2003 the song In Your Eyes was moved from the fifth place to the ninth. This was what Gabriel originally intended, but because of the limitations of an LP it was transposed to be the first track on side two. Beside Gabriel, the most important musicians on So are Tony Levin (bass, drumstick bass), David Rhodes (guitar, backing vocals), Jerry Marotta (drums, drumstick bass) and Manu Katché (drums, percussion). The album also featured several guest musicians like P. P. Arnold, Stewart Copeland (The Police), Jim Kerr (Simple Minds) and Nile Rodgers (Chic).
This Special Edition 3CD set includes the remastered album So alongside the previously unreleased 2CD Live In Athens 1987. The CD version of the album sounds even better than the original one. The concert on the other discs is certainly a nice extra that features many of Gabriel's hits. However, it also contains songs that were probably unknown to his new audience that mainly came to see him perform his well-known hits. As usual Gabriel and his band are in great shape. This time he performs Don't Give Up on his own singing Kate Bush's parts as well. In Your Eyes gets a much longer live version, but it's still a pleasure to listen to. This also applies to the protest song Biko.
Although I don't have the 25th Anniversary Edition of So, it is worthwhile buying. It was released in two versions. The Deluxe Edition contains the original remastered album and the double album Live In Athens 1987. The 25th Anniversary Immersion box-set contains the Deluxe Edition CDs alongside the So DNA CD, with the original album tracks in their evolutionary states, two DVDs containing the concert film Live In Athens 1987 and the documentary So: Classic Albums. Also included is the original album on LP and the 12-inch AA vinyl single, which contains the unreleased tracks Courage and Sagrada, and an alternate version of Don't Give Up. Finally, there's also a studio quality 24-bit digital download and a sixty-page case bound book. Both the CD and the LP feature the track listing from the previously remastered release. The tracks on the AA vinyl single are also included in the free 24-bit download.
I asked myself how to rate an album which is considered to be a classic. Well, I purely let it depend on the degree of enjoying this album and I concluded that I enjoyed it a lot. Moreover, it was one of the first Gabriel albums that I bought on CD. I think I'll always find So a true masterpiece, so for this remastered and perfect re-release I can only give the highest rating of five stars. In my opinion this is the only score this album deserves!
***** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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