Peter Gabriel was my first concert — and I really do mean first: I was in utero at the time. When my parents were first married, they’d put on “In Your Eyes” and dance together after work, and to this day extended family gatherings invariably end with drunken renditions of “Secret World”. In short, Peter Gabriel’s work has always been dear to me and mine, and while I bounce around his different albums, I always come back to So. It’s his greatest commercial success, his magnum opus and the most perfect encapsulation of his career’s versatility. It’s as much a work of art as it is a commentary on art, and in only nine seminal tracks, Gabriel refined and inspired entire waves of songwriters.
More so than any of his other albums, So demonstrates Gabriel’s mastery of musical shapeshifting. As a result, the album is almost impossible to categorize: Rock? Pop? Prog? The titanic Brit doesn’t blur lines between genres — he takes a wrecking ball to them. Take “Sledgehammer”, for example — pop horns and funk bass back his triumphant voice in a radio-ready ode to gettin’ it on. “In Your Eyes”, the album’s most recognizable track, is the perfect 80s hit made even more timeless by African rhythms and Youssou N’dour’s cathartic crooning. When “Big Time” came out, some fans saw it as Gabriel’s sell-out anthem — the musical genius who once gallivanted in flower masks fronting Genesis had finally succumbed to pop grooming. Yet a closer look at the lyrics show the song to be a wry commentary on the nature of celebrity: “I’ll be a big noise with all the big boys/So much stuff I will own.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Peter Gabriel’s prog id takes voraciously over in “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”, a synth-heavy, lurching response to Milgram’s famous psychology experiments on obedience. “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” is deeply experimental not only in its bizarre lyrics, but also in its bare bones groove, complete with Manu Katché on talking drums. “Mercy Street” acts as the album’s halfway mark — a breathtakingly delicate crawl towards redemption. Inspired by Anne Sexton’s work, the song demonstrates both Gabriel’s skill in harmony and his insatiable taste for world music. Who else would combine Brazilian surdo drums, congas, and processed sax?
So is a sprawling masterpiece, a gentle storm of prog pop and world music, word and machine, beauty and progress all swirled seamlessly together. Time will show that those who dislike it, or even feel apathy towards it, are objectively mistaken — subjectivity offers no grace here.
Since So came out in 1986, Peter Gabriel has steadily released (very good) albums and continued touring. His most recent release, And I’ll Scratch Yours, is the second part of a project wherein Gabriel and artists such as Feist, Lou Reed, Bon Iver, and Brian Eno cover each other’s work. He also just finished a recent leg of European touring. I actually got to see him last year at Jones Beach where the show was, of course, sold out. Did I cry when he performed “In Your Eyes”? Maybe. Over the years, he has also helped out with Amnesty International, The Elders Program, Greenpeace and other organizations. In other words, he is still very much revered and very much relevant.
Even today, Peter Gabriel’s influence can be heard anywhere from popular radio to any holier-than-thou blog. While his thoughtful lyricism and versatile songwriting helped pave the way for artists like Regina Spektor and Bon Iver, Gabriel’s contributions to world music also resonates with Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, and others. It’s no coincidence that Vampire Weekend drops his name — “This feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel, too” — in their heavily-African “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”. Even radio pop star Gotye cites Peter Gabriel as his greatest musical influence. In the sunset of his career, he’s still shaping the direction of today’s music.