critic’s pick 251

Peter Gabriel’s leap from prog rock journeyman to global star in 1986 remains one of pop music’s most unexpected transformations. Today, over 26 years after its initial release, the singer’s fifth studio album, So, can be easily viewed as the catalyst of this career reinvention.

So was a record that had it all – a pair of jubilant, though slightly heady, hit singles (Sledgehammer and Big Time), a densely patterned rocker to satisfy the prog holdovers (Red Rain), a bold affirmation of Gabriel’s world music preferences (In Your Eyes) and a dark meditation inspired by, of all artists, Anne Sexton that stands as perhaps Gabriel’s greatest recorded moment (Mercy Street).

Add to that an extraordinary core band (bassist Tony Levin, guitarist David Rhodes, and drummer Manu Katche), an A-list of collaborators (Kate Bush, Stewart Copeland, Youssou N’Dour, Laurie Anderson and others), direction from who would soon become one of pop’s most innovative producers (Daniel Lanois) and a taste of for groundbreaking music videos that made Gabriel a regular fixture on MTV and So couldn’t miss at becoming one the signature pop works of the ‘80s.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall (curiously, a year late) are three reissued editions of So. The first is a straight remastered version of the album. The third is a massive (and expensive) box set full of DVDs, documentaries, vinyl and more. Reviewed here is the second reissue, the three-CD 25th Anniverary Deluxe Edition that matches the original album with a complete, unreleased live album taken from a 1997 stadium performance in Athens at the conclusion of the So tour.

It’s a beaut, too, with Gabriel singing like a man possessed during a petulant, keyboard orchestrated Mercy Street. The second live disc contracts into the post-apocalyptic cocoon of Here Comes the Flood before igniting the global block party feel of In Your Eyes with Senegalese singing star/activist N’Dour.

The big difference in the live material and the comparative studio reserve of So is French drummer Katche, who plays like an unleashed beast on the Athens tracks. He whips Shock the Monkey into a volcanic frenzy, pounds Intruder full of We Will Rock You-like physicality and invests No Self Control with a near militaristic drive.

Curiously, this reconstituted So coincides with the release of Katche’s self-titled fourth album, a straight-up jazz record for the European ECM label.

Katche often recalls another prog rocker-turned-jazzer, Bill Bruford, on the album, especially as the playful percussive chatter that initiates Running After Years opens into warm piano/trumpet greetings from Jim Watson and Nils Petter Molvaer. But when Manu Katche employs brushes to color the reserved, brassy chill of the Jon Hassell-like Slowing the Tides, we hear the true range of the drummer’s resourceful but crafty vocabulary.   

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