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Music / So

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"I wanna touch the light, the heat I see in your eyes."

"The place where I come from is a small town
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 by singer songwriter Peter Gabriel, released in May of 1986. His final album on Charisma Records, with whom he had been signed to since his days with Genesis, it was a massive commercial success for Gabriel, 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. So also fared well critically, appearing on the Rolling Stone's "Top 100 Albums of the Eighties" list, taking the number 14 spot.

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. Public interest in worldbeat would decline for the remainder of the decade as a result of the controversies surrounding Graceland's production in South Africa, but despite this, So continues to remain a treasured highlight in both worldbeat and art pop.


A documentary about the creative process behind the making of this album can be seen in the Classic Albums TV documentary series.

The album was listed at #187 in Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.


Side One

  1. "Red Rain" (5:39)
  2. "Sledgehammer" (5:12)
  3. "Don't Give Up" (feat. Kate Bush) (6:33)
  4. "That Voice Again" (4:53)

Side Two

  1. "In Your Eyes" (5:27) note 
  2. "Mercy Street" (6:22)
  3. "Big Time" (4:28)
  4. "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" (3:22)
  5. "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)" (feat. Laurie Anderson) (4:25)note 

I've been troping the rhythm:

  • Alliterative Title: "Red Rain."
  • And Starring: Kate Bush sings along during "Don't Give Up."
  • Animated Music Video: The videos for "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time", both directed by Stephen R. Johnson, make heavy use of stop-motion animation techniques. Johnson had also directed Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere", which also used stop-motion animation the year before this album came out.
  • Atomic Hate: "Red Rain" has been interpreted as referring to the fallout at Hiroshima, which was experienced as exactly that.
  • Blasphemous Boast: "Big Time":
    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 finitum near the end.
  • Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: "Don't Give Up" has notes of this between Gabriel's character and Kate Bush's character.
  • Double Entendre: "Sledgehammer" is packed to the rafters with these; the very first line has the narrator promising his love interest a "steam train," and he 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.
  • 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:"
    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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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".
  • 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.
  • Money Song/"I Want" Song: Done satirically with "Big Time".
  • New Sound Album: Compared to his previous, experimental albums, So is much poppier and more accessible.
  • Notable Music Videos: "Sledgehammer", whose stop-motion animated video became the most-played video of all time on MTV, to the point that Gabriel himself requested they stop playing it.
  • Not Christian Rock: "In Your Eyes."
  • 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).
    • 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.
  • Small Town Boredom: As shown in the quote on top of the page, it's heavily implied that the narrator of "Big Time" feels this way.
  • Special Guest: Kate Bush on "Don't Give Up," Youssou N'Dour on "In Your Eyes," and Laurie Anderson on "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)".
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: The ending of "Big Time", as seen above under Double Entendre.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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