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Peter Gabriel, ‘So’ 25th Anniversary Edition – Album Review

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When Peter Gabriel releases music, there’s nothing half-hearted about it. The latest example: the lavish, comprehensive reissue of his landmark 1986 solo album, ‘So.’

The original nine-song release is packaged with a double live album, ‘Live From Athens 1987.’ (An even more extensive version of this reissue, ‘So (The 25th Anniversary Immersion Box),’ has all this music plus a DVD of this concert, the ‘So’ classic albums DVD, the album on vinyl and a single with unreleased songs.)

Incredibly, ‘So’ is often criticized for its ambition; in 2002, one critic even called it a “ruthless bid for mainstream success.” One suspects much of this ire is directed toward the splashy singles ‘Big Time’ and ‘Sledgehammer,’ whose soul-stung funk admittedly sounded (and still sounds) very 1987. (The intriguing demo version of ‘Big Time’ included with the ‘Immersion Box’ is far weirder—more David Bowie-esque art-disco than anything MTV-friendly.)

But that pair of songs aside, ‘So’ hardly feels like it makes any commercial concessions. In fact, the album is Gabriel at his most vulnerable.

He demonstrates exquisite vocal delicacy on the yearning, piano-dazzled ‘That Voice Again’ — a love song torn apart by self-doubt — and the churning  ‘Red Rain,’ which boasts unmistakable Daniel Lanois atmospheric texture and gnarled Tony Levin bass. The gentle optimism on the Kate Bush duet/swooning lullaby ‘Don’t Give Up’ is magnified by richer percussion thrum and plush vocal layers, courtesy of guests such as Youssou N’Dour, Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, the Call’s Michael Been.

Thanks to the remastered sound, these songs sound more dynamic and mysterious. The moody, Pink Floyd-like ‘We Do What We’re Told (Milligrams 37)’ features murky synths and bleeds right into ‘This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds),’ which boasts a glassy art-funk underbelly and feathery Laurie Anderson vocal contributions.

The sculpted bent of these songs seeps into the bonus concert, which is a formidable summary of Gabriel’s live power. ‘Intruder’ isn’t quite as sinister, but the insistent drums and hodge-podge piano convey appropriate chaos; a vivid ‘The Family And The Fishing Net’ has rippling keyboards to match theatrical vocals; and ‘Games Without Frontiers’ is a jaunty, electric-guitar-grooved lockstep march.

Since his Genesis days, the live experience has been essential to understanding Gabriel’s music. This particular concert pushes the ‘So’ reissue into essential territory.

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