They think so small, they use small words
But not me; I'm smarter than that
I've worked it out
I'll be stretching my mouth to make those big words come right out"
So is the fifth studio album recorded by singer/songwriter Peter Gabriel. It was released through Charisma Records in the United Kingdom, and Virgin Records and Geffen Records elsewhere in the world, on 19 May 1986.
His final album on Charisma Records, with whom he had been signed to since his days with Genesis, the album marks a shift to a more accessible art pop direction compared to the more abstract style of his previous albums. Making greater use of radio-friendly song structures and instrumentation while still focusing on a World Music sound (particularly traditional African and Brazilian music) and heavy use of digital sampling via the Fairlight CMI, it stands in stark contrast to the Progressive Rock of his first two albums and the experimental Post-Punk-meets-worldbeat sound of his third and fourth records, and would set the precedent for his following work even after he shifted back to a more obtuse direction. The album also sees a greater number of guest vocalists than previous albums, featuring backing parts by Kate Bush, Youssou N'Dour, and Laurie Anderson (Bush had previously appeared on Gabriel's "No Self Control" and "Games Without Frontiers" in 1980). Additionally, it is Gabriel's first album to not be a Self-Titled Album, owing to increasing pressure from both Charisma and his American label Geffen Records, the latter of whom had previously forced Gabriel to retitle his fourth album Security in the US and Canada.
The end result was a massive commercial success for Gabriel, topping the charts in the UK, Austria, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, New Zealand, and Norway, and peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, catapulting the cult favorite musician into a worldwide phenomenon as "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" became hits on MTV. To this day, it is still his highest-selling studio album, being certified quintuple-platinum in the US, triple-platinum in the UK, platinum in Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, and gold in Belgium, France, Hong Kong, and Spain. So is significant in a broader perspective in that, along with Graceland by Paul Simon, it marked the peak of the western worldbeat boom that both Gabriel himself and Talking Heads had instigated in 1980 with Gabriel's third Self-Titled Album and Remain in Light.
On a more dubious note, the album's creation also marked the slowing-down of Gabriel's creative process as an artist. Unlike prior records, which took only a few months at most to record, Gabriel spent almost the entirety of 1985 putting together So, with later studio albums only taking longer and longer to come out. Gabriel later admitted that this was the result of Attention Deficit Creator Disorder, constantly taking on other commitments that end up stalling album production. Gabriel's next studio album after So, Us, would take nearly three years to complete, and the album after that took seven. While the two albums after that, Scratch My Back and New Blood, were both completed fairly quickly, those were a Cover Album and a series of re-recordings of old material, respectively; Scratch My Back also only started production seven years after its predecessor's release. His prospective tenth studio album (and eighth of original studio material), I/O, is still in production to this day.
A documentary about the creative process behind the making of this album can be seen in the Classic Albums TV documentary series.
So was supported by five singles: "Sledgehammer", "Don't Give Up", "In Your Eyes", "Big Time", and "Red Rain". "That Voice Again" was also given out to radio stations as a promotional single.
- "Red Rain" (5:39)
- "Sledgehammer" (5:12)
- "Don't Give Up" (feat. Kate Bush) (6:33)
- "That Voice Again" (4:53)
- "Mercy Street" (6:22)
- "Big Time" (4:28)
- "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" (3:22)
- "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)" (feat. Laurie Anderson) (4:25)note
- "In Your Eyes" (feat. Youssou N'Dour) (5:27)note
I've been troping the rhythm:
- Alliterative Title: "Red Rain."
- And Starring: Kate Bush sings along during "Don't Give Up". Unlike her prior appearances on Gabriel's "No Self Control" and "Games Without Frontiers", Bush was given co-billing alongside Gabriel on the song's single release, and consequently the single is generally considered a part of both artists' back-catalogs.
- Animated Music Video: The videos for "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time", both directed by Stephen R. Johnson, make heavy use of stop-motion animation techniques. Gabriel selected Johnson specifically because he had also directed Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere", which also used stop-motion animation the year before this album came out.
- Blasphemous Boast: "Big Time":And my Heaven will be a big Heaven
And I will walk through the front door
- Book Ends: The video for "Big Time" both begins and ends with Gabriel, with a Fake American accent, saying "Hi there!" The song itself just has that part in the intro.
- Broken Record: "Big Time" has the word "big" repeated ad infinitum near the end.
- Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: "Don't Give Up" has notes of this between Gabriel's character and Kate Bush's character.
- Celebrity Is Overrated: The ironic "I Want" Song lyricism of "Big Time" was written as Gabriel's means of examining his fame as both the former frontman of Genesis and a solo artist, questioning whether or not he'd wanted it in the first place.
- Continuity Nod: The Japanese release gives the album the subtitle Peter Gabriel V, referencing the fact that the four albums before it were all eponymous.
- Double Entendre: "Sledgehammer" is packed to the rafters with these; the very first line has the narrator promising his love interest a "steam train" if she'll just lay down her tracks (and it doesn't let up from there).
- "Big Time" refers to "the bulge in my big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, BIG." (The previous line is "Look at my circumstance", so it's pretty easy to guess what the implied rhyme is.)
- Downer Ending:
- The original LP release ends with "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)", a melancholic mood piece about Stanley Milgram's controversial shock experiments with an overarching tone of hopelessness. On CD & cassette releases and later LP reissues, the track is instead simply an Unexpectedly Dark Episode, being followed up by the offbeat "This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)" and, from the 2002 remaster onwards, "In Your Eyes".
- In a more meta example, "In Your Eyes" was written to win back a woman Peter lost — it didn't work (at least it worked for Lloyd Dobler). The fallout of this would later serve as one of many tribulations that informed the much darker direction of Gabriel's next album.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: "Don't Give Up" qualifies both lyrically and musically.
- Epic Rocking: "Don't Give Up" (6:35) and "Mercy Street" (6:18), with "Red Rain" (5:41) just missing the mark.
- Well over half of the bonus tracks from the 2012 remaster are examples. From Live in Athens 1987 we have "San Jacinto" (7:27), "Shock the Monkey" (6:44), "Mercy Street" (9:15), "The Family and the Fishing Net" (7:09), "Don't Give Up" (8:17), "Lay Your Hands on Me" (6:15), "In Your Eyes" (10:38), and "Biko" (9:38). From So DNA (demo versions of the whole album) we have "Red Rain" (6:15), "Sledgehammer" (6:31), "Don't Give Up" (6:11), "That Voice Again" (6:39), "Mercy Street" (7:51), "Big Time" (6:54), and "In Your Eyes" (10:15). That means seven of nine tracks from the demo disc and eight of sixteen from the live discs top the six-minute mark (and the live version of "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)" just barely misses at 5:57).
- Everything Is an Instrument: Bassist Tony Levin stuck a diaper below the strings of his instrument in order to dampen the bass part's sound in the second half of "Don't Give Up".
- Face on the Cover: Gabriel's face in close-up. As a deliberate artistic decision, the image lacks any of the effects seen on Gabriel's prior album covers. Gabriel stated that this was done after being informed that his previous covers alienated female audiences, while designer Peter Saville claimed that it was meant to tie in with the emotional and accessible tone of the music.
- Foreshadowing: "That Voice Again" was based on discussions Gabriel had with Martin Scorsese about scoring The Last Temptation of Christ, which was in pre-production during So's own production; consequently, the song acts as a rough prelude to Gabriel's full soundtrack album for the film, 1989's Passion. By pure coincidence, So was the last album Gabriel released on Charisma Records (which was absorbed into Virgin Records shortly after the latter's buyout by EMI), and Passion was the first album Gabriel released on his new vanity label, Real World Records (though his first proper studio album on the label was Us in 1992).
- God-Is-Love Songs: "In Your Eyes" is sometimes mentioned by Peter as being this; he deliberately wrote the lyrics so that it could be interpreted either as one of these songs or as a romantic song.
- Heroic BSoD: "Don't Give Up" is about a man driven to suicidal depression after becoming unemployed. He seems to get better towards the end of the song.
- Intercourse with You: "Sledgehammer", a song consisting entirely of sexually-driven double entendres.Oh let me be your sledgehammer
This will be my testimony
Show me 'round your fruitcage
Cause I will be your honey bee
Open up your fruitcage
Where the fruit is as sweet as can be.
- "I Want" Song: Done satirically with "Big Time".
- Lighter and Softer: Compared to Gabriel's prior works, So is much more upbeat (for the most part), with much of the songs sounding very much anthemic compared to the more atmospheric direction of both his earlier and later works. This even extends to the album cover, which is simply a straightforward headshot of Gabriel, far-removed from his otherwise consistent tendency to distort his own image in some way on his cover art.
- Limited Lyrics Song: "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)".
- Loudness War: While not the worst modern example, the 2012 remaster is louder than the original, at the expense of dynamic range, clocking in at DR8. Oddly, the demos on the fourth CD are mostly unaffected. The earlier 2002 remaster, meanwhile, is much more favorable, at an average of DR11 (only a slight step down from the DR12 of the original 1986 release; in fact, the entire 2002 remaster campaign for Gabriel's 20th century discography is pretty well-done).
- Lyrical Cold Open: "Big Time" opens with Gabriel in a Fake American accent shouting "hi there!" just before the instrumental kicks in.
- Meaningful Name: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So. This is Gabriel's fifth album. You can figure out the rest.
- Minimalistic Cover Art: A black and white photograph of Gabriel against a solid white backdrop; mitigated somewhat on CD and digital reissues, which incorporate the logo sticker from the LP shrinkwrap into the cover. Worth noting is that the album cover and logotype was designed by longtime Joy Division and New Order collaborator Peter Saville, himself a master of this trope.
- New Sound Album: Compared to his previous, experimental albums, So is much poppier and more accessible.
- One-Word Title: "So" and "Sledgehammer." The choice of album name was a Writer Revolt against executive demand that Gabriel finally start titling his albums (as his previous four were self-titled, creating enough confusion among catalogers that people started adopting their own names for the first three, while the fourth had a title forcibly given to it by Geffen Records for its US release), with "So" being chosen in part because it was an anti-title of sorts.
- Pastiche: "Sledgehammer" is a pastiche of Southern Soul, and Gabriel himself has described the song as "[his] chance to sing like Otis Redding."
- Pep-Talk Song: Kate Bush's parts in "Don't Give Up".
- Protest Song: "Don't Give Up" was written as an expression of Gabriel's discontent towards the rising unemployment rates in Britain during Margaret Thatcher's tenure as prime minister.
- Rearrange the Song:
- "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)" is an alternate version of Laurie Anderson's own song "Excellent Birds" (on which Gabriel provided backing vocals), written and recorded for the 1984 Nam June Paik art film Good Morning Mr. Orwell.
- Live performances of "In Your Eyes" are far more anthemic and drawn out compared to the studio version (usually lasting upwards of ten minutes), being much more celebratory in tone as a result.
- Retraux: "Sledgehammer," according to Gabriel, was written as a throwback to soul music from The '60s, and even features the Memphis Horns (who played on a lot of Stax-produced records) on backup.
- As confirmed by designer Peter Saville, the album cover's "Deliberately Monochrome headshot of artist against a white background with a simple but striking logotype on the side" design is a nod to Low-Life by New Order; Saville designed the cover art for both records, and has a penchant for carrying over design elements from album to album in a short span of time. The style of the photo is also based on the work of photographer David Bailey.
- The pixilation-heavy Stop Motion video for "Sledgehammer" is a deliberate nod to a scene in the video for "Road to Nowhere" by Talking Heads, of whom Gabriel was a noted fan. A nod to the same Talking Heads video also appears in that for "Big Time", which has a brief scene of Gabriel sitting in an elaborate throne room similar in design to the one David Byrne sits in during "Road to Nowhere".
- Small Town Boredom: It's heavily implied that the narrator of "Big Time" feels this way, complaining that the residents there "think so small and use small words" before proclaiming that he's "better than that."
- Special Guest:
- The Police drummer Stewart Copeland plays hi-hat on "Red Rain" and drums on "Big Time". Gabriel in fact selected Copeland to play on "Red Rain" specifically because of his skill with hi-hat cymbals, marking a break from Gabriel's self-imposed ban on metallic percussion sounds that stretched back to Melt.
- Adam and the Ants drummer Chris Hughes plays electronic drum parts and provides programming for "Red Rain".
- King Crimson bassist and regular Gabriel collaborator Tony Levin plays bass on the first five tracks of the album, plus drumstick bass on "Big Time" (which was done collaboratively with session percussionist Jerry Marotta; the technique would later inspire Levin to invent funk fingers, specialized drumsticks fastened onto one's fingertips, to recreate the effect on his own).
- Memphis Horns player Wayne Jackson, Billy Joel collaborator Mark Rivera, and soul singer P.P. Arnold perform on "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time", with Jackson providing trumpet and coronet parts, Rivera playing saxophone, and Arnold singing backing vocals.
- Prior collaborator Kate Bush duets with Gabriel on "Don't Give Up".
- Indian violinist Lakshminarayana Shankar performs violin parts on "That Voice Again" and "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)". Shankar had previously collaborated with Gabriel's former Genesis bandmate, Phil Collins.
- Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour provides backing vocals on "In Your Eyes" and sings the outro; Gabriel would return the favor by singing on N'Dour's "Shaking the Tree" three years later. The Call frontman Michael Been and Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr also provide backing vocals on "In Your Eyes".
- Avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson provides synthesizer parts and backing vocals on "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)", itself a remix of a prior collaboration. Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers also plays guitar on the same track.
- Stop Motion: Almost the entirety of the video for "Sledgehammer" consists of this, courtesy of Aardman Animations, combining claymation, puppets, raw chickens, and especially pixilation. The extensive and highly creative use of the technique throughout the video led to it becoming an '80s icon, the most acclaimed music video ever, and the most famous entry in Gabriel's filmography, to the point where many of his later videos (most notably "Steam") were direct responses to it. The video for "Big Time" also falls into this, a collaboration between Aardman and New York animator Peter Walach, featuring a lot more claymation than the previous video.
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: The ending of "Big Time", which pairs "look at my circumstance" with "the bulge in my big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, BIG." Reportedly, Gabriel meant to more properly rhyme it with "pants," but A&R representatives shot the idea down.
- Surreal Music Video: Comedic ones with "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time", the latter of which is best described as "Sledgehammer" thrown even further off the rails.
- Textless Album Cover: While most releases of So feature a logotype of the album title and artist name, on LP releases this is simply a small removable sticker, a-la a Pink Floyd album. This was a compromise between designer Peter Saville, who wanted the cover to be textless, and Charisma Records.
- Unusual Euphemism: The title of "Sledgehammer" refers to Gabriel's "sledgehammer," and the lyrics are littered with other such euphemisms.
- Updated Re-release: The 2002 remaster moved "In Your Eyes" to the end of the album, in keeping with Gabriel's original intention.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: "Milgram's 37," as those who pay attention to psychologists know, is about Stanley Milgram's subjects in his shock experiments, and "Mercy Street" is about / Inspired by… the works of the late poet Anne Sexton, who wrote the source of the song's title — 45 Mercy Street.