Peter Gabriel is one of the really unique, interesting, creative guys of popular music over the last few decades. At least, I think that he is. But when I tried to remember why I thought that, all I could think of was his music videos of Steam and Sledgehammer. They’re two music TV staples, and they really are about the only thing I know about his music. Oh, and that he was the singer of Genesis before Phil Collins. So if his leaving Genesis was the push that Collins needed to step out from behind the drum kit and become a front man, I should really hate Peter Gabriel for unleashing that horror upon the world. But those music videos for Steam and Sledgehammer are so good, that they were more than enough to make me finally pull my finger out, and listen to an entire Gabriel LP, So.
There’s a certain synthesised sound from the 80s that rarely works for me. I’m a rock fan and love nothing more than real guitars and drums. But I can also appreciate less organic sounds. Hip hop sampling and production is obviously an art from, and even electronic music can have its moments. But the synthesised sound that rarely works is the one that sounds like one guy, layering track after track after track using his Casio keyboard. Which is exactly what Gabriel presents on Red Rain, yet, it works. I think it’s because Gabriel’s voice has its own synthesised tone to it, that makes it fit this artificiality in a way no one else really does.
I don’t think I’d ever noticed before that Sledgehammer begins with Asian panpipes for no apparent reason. Was it just a preset on the Casio that Gabriel hadn’t used yet and was determined to get out there? Because after their inexplicable and pointless flutter to open, the sing turns into big horn bombast, thumping bass work and 80s over production at its best.
Unfortunately, all of that studio tweaking and polishing takes away from what I assume is meant to be a pretty heartfelt, genuine heart barer in Don’t Give Up. With Gabriel dueting with a shrill female vocalist, what was assumedly meant as raw emotion is undercut every step of the way by the overcooked instrumentation and mix.
After a couple of songs of syrupy pointlessness, So comes alive again with Big Time. A funked up, often slapped bass, plenty of cheap and nasty synth, and a (possibly fake) guitar sound that I should hate. It turns out, I dig all of these things when they have some life, some energy, some fun behind them.
Now that I’ve listened to So, my initial opinion of Peter Gabriel seems pretty justified. I probably only really liked maybe half of this record, but I liked that half enough to make it worth sitting through the meandering bullshit, like This is the Picture (Excellent Birds). So confirms that Gabriel is one of the really unique, interesting, creative guys of popular music over the last few decades. It also proves that there’s an entire era of 80s music that I have written off, that might need further examination. Because if anyone else can pull if off half as well as Gabriel does here, it’s definitely worth a listen.