Just to make clear out the outset, this is a review for the single-disc, remastered recent edition of this CD, with no frills, no bonus DVDs or whatever. I like this album enough to update to a CD but (whisper it) not enough to go the whole hog.
So...so, I followed Peter Gabriel from his solo debut onwards, enchanted by his quirky, edgy and eclectic songwriting, his chameleon-like personality and the sheer energy with which he sought out new sounds and forged them into very personal testaments.
Well, the good news with "So" is the eclecticism is still in place. The bad news is that it's the Eighties, and that the quirk and edge have been smooooothed down to present something accessible and mass-marketable and thoroughly entertaining. If you like that kind of stuff. I mean, just take a look at that cover - whereas before Gabriel would fearlessly obscure or manipulate his own image on his covers, here he is in full Eighties glossy mode, staring moodily out at you. It could be Paul Young, Robert Palmer or even Phil Collins. This introverted outsider who found his voice and vented his spleen in his music is suddenly....swoonsome!
But, okay, the music: it's fun, really. It's highly polished, sophisticated stuff that, even while listening to it, summons up any one of a hundred images from a hundred MTV videos of the time. I have no idea if "Red Rain" had a video, but I can picture one in my head when I listen to it. You know the one: singer wearing a long raincoat, sleeves rolled up, arms outstretched, wind machine going and rain pouring onto a studio floor somewhere. It's a nice, epic start to the album with lyrics that undercut the uplifting tone of the music. It's then followed by a tune that needs no introduction, the unavoidable and thoroughly irritating "Sledgehammer". This, despite the global trappings (bamboo flute, Manu Katche drumming) is an unashamed poptastic chart-grab, with funky horns, stupid lyrics and a simple, infectious beat. Oh, and an inventive and goofy video which endeared Gabriel to millions. The man who gave us "Mother of Violence" "Here Comes the Flood" "On the Air" "Not One of Us" and "San Jacinto" here sings "I kicked the habit/I shed my skin/This is the new stuff/I come dancing in" . Essentially: "The hell with you, you old hippies, I want my MTV!" You get the feeling, listening to this, even as you tap your toes and nod your head, that Gabriel took a look at what Phil Collins was doing and thought "Yeah, I've done my time: I could do with a piece of that action".
Fortunately, after this the album improves tenfold, with the heartbreaking and heartfelt "Don't Give Up", his duet with Kate Bush, while "That Voice Again" echoes "Red Rain"'s sweeping rhythm and will have you dancing across the room despite the seriousness of the lyrical content (I thought it was about the breakdown of a relationship, but apparently not). "Mercy Street" creates an eerie, thoughtful atmosphere and is one of the most haunting - and subsequently best - tracks here. Unfortunately, it's followed by the stonking, obnoxious beat of "Big Time" (or Sledgehammer Pt II as I think of it) which takes cheap and obvious shots at materialism, success and all the things that this album was to ultimately reap Gabriel. The mood swings wildly again for "Milgram's 37", an uncompromising dirge (and I mean that in a good way) referring to the notorious psychological experiment, to be followed by another piece of esoterica, a collaboration with Laurie Anderson. This wasn't on my original copy, so I'm not as familiar with it as the rest of the album, which actually counts in its favour. The CD version finishes off with the gloriously upbeat, happy, danceable, straight-out love song "In Your Eyes", which throws in Youssou N'Dour's soaring vocals. The original vinyl release ended with "Milgram's 37" but at some point somebody obviously thought "Hey, we can't end on such a bummer! Everybody dance! Happy happy!".
So....that's the album. It sold by the truckload, by the millions of truckloads. Along with "Graceland" it was the album every household seemed to have, and every radio station and department store seemed to play. It became one of THE albums of the Eighties: An enjoyable, slickly produced collection of fairly diverse tunes with a glossy overcoat and, to quote one music critic about a different album entirely, "the whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost" . It's fun, it really is, if you like that sort of thing. But at the same time, I can't help but feel: "Wait, what have you done with the real Peter Gabriel?" Sure, every artist needs to evolve, but it's as if the bold, angry and emotionally raw artist of only a couple of years earlier had been replaced with a globally successful artist whose music could sit comfortably at a wine and cheese evening somewhere in the home counties ("Oh, 'Big Time', yah, I love this song - turn up the Bang & Olufson, Jocasta, yah?").
Sometimes, growing up sucks.