So is the fifth studio album by English rock musician Peter Gabriel, released on 19 May 1986 by Charisma Records. After working on the soundtrack to the film Birdy (1984), producer Daniel Lanois was invited to remain at Gabriel’s home during 1985 to work on his next solo project. Initial sessions for So consisted of Gabriel, Lanois and guitarist David Rhodes, although these grew to include a number of percussionists.
Prior to recording So, Gabriel released four studio albums all titled . They received nicknames based on their sleeve art, which were designed by English duo Hipgnosis. His debut, Car (1977), received positive reviews, mainly because of the hugely popular “Solsbury Hill“, which concerned the site of the same name near Ashcombe House, Gabriel’s estate to the north-east of Bath in Somerset. His second album—Scratch (1978)—fared less well and it was not until Melt (1980) that Gabriel was considered a progressive solo artist. Melt included the emotive anti-apartheid song “Biko” and the popular “Games Without Frontiers“, with Gabriel helping to “blueprint the sound of 80s rock through its trailblazing use of what became known as the “gated reverb” drum effect.” In the early 1980s, Gabriel embarked on various projects, including founding the World Music, Arts and Dance Festival (WOMAD), with a WOMAD album featuring himself, Robert Fripp, Pete Townshend and other artists of the world music genre. His fourth album, Security (1982)—also released in German as the Deutsches Album (1982)—saw success with Gabriel’s music video for the eye-opening “Shock the Monkey“. Gabriel won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for scoring the soundtrack to the film Birdy (1984).[ Bono (U2) contacted Gabriel to perform at A Conspiracy of Hope, a series of Live Aid-inspired concerts that intended to spread awareness of human rights issues in light of Amnesty International’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Gabriel accepted and in June 1986, he performed alongside Sting, The Police, Lou Reed and Joan Baez, with a set that opened with “Red Rain” and featured “Sledgehammer“. Gabriel described it as “the best tour [he’d] ever been on”. So is often regarded as Gabriel’s best album, as well as one of the best albums of the 1980s. It enabled Gabriel to transform from a cult artist, acclaimed for his cerebral, experimental solo work, into a mainstream, internationally known star, it is Gabriel’s best-selling album, having been certified fivefold platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and triple platinum by the British Phonographic Industry
Although Gabriel continued to use the pioneering Fairlight CMI synthesizer, songs from these sessions were notably less experimental than his previous material. Nevertheless, Gabriel drew on various musical influences, fusing pop, soul and art rock with elements of traditional world music, particularly African and Brazilian styles. It is Gabriel’s first non-eponymous album, So representing an “anti-title” that resulted from label pressure to properly market his music. Gabriel toured So on the This Way Up tour (1986–1987), with some songs performed at human rights and charity concerts during this period.
Gabriel said of the Lp “There is always wisdom from hindsight. And because ‘So’ was my most successful record, I think that a lot of people, particularly in America, think that it was designed to be that, from the other end of it, you never really know which records are going to do well. You know that some things are going to be so obscure and difficult for a mainstream audience that they’re no-hopers but generally, with what I do, it’s hard to predict which albums are going to do well”
Side One: Gabriel wanted the album to “crash open at the front” and despite disliking “metal” percussion instruments, he was persuaded by Lanois to allow The Police’s Stewart Copeland to play cymbals and hi-hat on its opener, “Red Rain”. The track sees Gabriel sing in his upper register with a throaty, gravely texture, of a destructive world with social problems such as torture and kidnapping. Its concept originated from a dream in which he envisaged the parting of a vast, red sea and human-like glass bottles filling up with blood. It was also intended to continue the story of Mozo, a recurring character in Gabriel’s first and second albums. The second track, “Sledgehammer”, was the final track to be conceived of. Although most of Gabriel’s band had packed away their equipment and were ready to leave the studio, Gabriel asked them to reassemble to quickly run through a song he had an idea for. “Sledgehammer” was partially inspired by the music of Otis Redding, and Gabriel sought out Wayne Jackson, whom Gabriel had seen on tour with Redding in the 1960s, to record horns for the track. Opened by a shakuhachi bamboo flute, its beat is dominated by brass instruments, particularly Jackson’s horn, and features lyrics abundant with sexual euphemisms. Manu Katché’s drums were recorded in one take as he believed any subsequent version would be inferior to his original interpretation of the music.
So’s most prominent political statement, “Don’t Give Up“, was fuelled by Gabriel’s discontent with rising unemployment during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother“. The track began as a rhythm pattern of slow, low-pitched tom-tom drums that Gabriel made, and Lanois believed could serve as the centrepiece of a song. Tony Levin added bass to create a more harmonious sound, and during the second half of the track, put a nappy behind his bass strings to dampen the sound. Gabriel ensured the song, which follows a narrative of an unemployed man and his lover, was written as a conversational piece. He initially sought out Dolly Parton to portray the woman, although Parton declined; his friend Kate Bush later agreed to feature. Bush serves as the song’s respondent, she assumes a comforting role and with delicate vocals, sings lines such as “Rest your head/ you worry too much”. The album’s first side culminates with “That Voice Again“, in which Gabriel explores the concept of conscience, examining the “parental voice in our heads that either helps or defeats us”. Co-written with David Rhodes, who plays guitar over Katché and Levin’s input, the song was written after Gabriel’s initial discussions with Martin Scorsese about scoring The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
“In Your Eyes” has been described as Gabriel’s greatest love song. Inspired by the Sagrada Família and its architect Antoni Gaudí, Gabriel sings over a drumbeat of only feeling complete in the eyes of his lover. The track’s powerful atmosphere is created through the scat singing of Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour, who sings in his native language. Gabriel became interested in the late American poet Anne Sexton after reading the anthology To Bedlam And Part Way Back. He dedicated So’s sixth track to her, calling it “Mercy Street” after “45 Mercy Street”, a poem released in another posthumous collection. “Mercy Street” is set to one of several Forró-inspired percussion compositions that Gabriel recorded in Rio de Janeiro. When these compositions were unearthed in the studio, they were accidentally played back ten per cent slower than the original recording, giving them a grainy quality that Gabriel and Lanois thought highlighted the cymbal and guitars. It features two harmonious Gabriel vocals; one a shadow vocal an octave below the main vocal. Intended to give a sensual, haunting effect, this was hard to capture except when Gabriel first woke up.
The dance song “Big Time” has funk influences and is built on a “percussive bass sound”. Its lyrics satirise the yuppie culture of the 1980s, materialism and consumerism and are the result of Gabriel’s self-examination, after he considered whether he may have desired fame after all. “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” was a song written for Peter Gabriel or “Melt” and is described as an interlude. It references the experiment on obedience carried out by American social psychologist Stanley Milgram, intended as a reference to the obedience citizens show to dictators during times of war. Marotta’s drums on the song – said to resemble “a heartbeat heard from the womb” – were coupled with Shankar’s violin and “two overdubbed guitar tracks by Rhodes”. The album is completed by “This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)”, which Gabriel decided, forty-eight hours before his album submission, was to be included. “Excellent Birds” was composed with American musician Laurie Anderson and featured on her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak. This was interpolated with a recording called “This Is The Picture“, on which Nile Rodgers plays rhythmic guitar
Often considered his best album, as well as his most accessible, So was an immediate commercial success and transformed Gabriel from a cult artist into a mainstream star, becoming his best-selling solo release. It has been certified fivefold platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America and triple platinum by the British Phonographic Industry. The album’s lead single, “Sledgehammer”, was promoted with an innovative animated music video and achieved particular success, reaching number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 and subsequently winning a record of nine MTV Video Music Awards. It was followed by four further singles, “Don’t Give Up” (a duet with Kate Bush), “Big Time”, “In Your Eyes” and “Red Rain”.
The album received positive reviews from most critics, who praised its songwriting, melodies and fusion of genres, although some retrospective reviews have criticised its overt commercialism and 1980s production sounds. So was nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1987 but lost to Paul Simon’s Graceland. It has continued to appear in lists of the best albums of the 1980s and was included at number 187 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. So was remastered in 2002, partially re-recorded for Gabriel’s 2012 orchestral project New Blood and issued as a box set the same year.