Peter Gabriel’s blockbuster fifth studio album, So, is often considered the art-rock godfather’s “pop album.” On one hand, it’s an absolute truth: Arriving after the brooding, icy textures of his early ‘80s work, So is practically wrapped in a radio-friendly bow. But critics tend to forget how downright weird So is, even at its hookiest and most playful.
“Red Rain” opens the album with a torrent of drama, Jerry Marotta’s tom-toms firing under Gabriel’s hoarse-throated vocal and bleak, apocalyptic imagery; “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” is an eerie, ambient pulse that creeps and crawls, building tension with its robotic chants; “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds),” Gabriel’s collaboration with singer/performance-artist Laurie Anderson, stutters in jagged 6/8 time, driven by the two singers’ interweaving call-and-response vocals and Tony Levin’s mind-numbing bassline. Meanwhile, even the album’s most infectious track, the sublime Stax-throwback “Sledgehammer,” is deceptively strange, blending soulful horns and perky rhythmic flourishes with perplexing sexual innuendos and a synthesized Chinese flute.
For Gabriel nuts like myself, these songs are so flawless, so deeply engrained in our imaginations, it’s easy to lose sight of the mesmerizing craft that went into writing them. On this 25th anniversary box set, a disc of “DNA” tracks help bring light to Gabriel’s songwriting process, with loose sketches and lo-fi, skeletal demos stitched together into sonic jigsaw-puzzles. The results aren’t often pretty, but that’s the entire point: It’s downright fascinating to hear how such massive ideas sprouted from such small spaces: On the atmospheric “Mercy Street,” you can hear Gabriel literally figuring out the melody and arrangement in real-time, fumbling through chord progressions, starting and stopping, morphing a line until something sticks. “Red Rain” starts out as an electric piano doodle played over canned percussion, Gabriel sprouting gibberish melodies; it morphs into a lost middle-section with a borderline hip-hop feel, eventually coalescing into the proper album’s more-or-less finished knockout. In five minutes or so, an awkward fragment is developed into a masterpiece.
Fans won’t be buying this new collection for the remixed So album—if you have the 2002 remaster, you have the proper album in all its glory. This new mix is less revelatory than redundant—sort of like air-brushing a picture you already Photoshopped. But whatever. If it helps sell more copies of one of the greatest albums ever made, so be it.
The true revelation here is the double-disc Live in Athens 1987, available on the more affordable 3-disc version and included with a DVD counterpart in the lavish box set. Simply put, it’s Gabriel’s most versatile, thrilling live collection. Mostly because it’s the best band he ever assembled: longtime bassist/god of thunder Tony Levin, guitarist David Rhodes, keyboardist David Sancious, and secret weapon drummer Manu Katche. They blaze through a set spanning the maestro’s sprawling catalogue, including a funky “No Self Control” and a rousing version of “Shock the Monkey” that might actually be that track’s definitive version. Rhodes’ guitar, often pushed to the back of the mix on 1983’s muddled Plays Live and 1994’s Secret World Live, has more impact here, still textural but adding tension and color to the percussive surge of “Lay Your Hands on Me” and the buzzing paranoia of “Intruder.” Gabriel, meanwhile, is at the top of his game, soaring through his trademark squeals and digging to his deepest growls.
These fancy re-issue campaigns can be overwhelming, not to mention wallet-busting. But unlike, say, Pink Floyd’s recent massive box sets, So isn’t about the postcards and marbles and disposable soda coasters. It’s a holistic view of an artist at his creative and commercial peak—and it’s as essential as a box set can get.