If, And, But, Maybe
by Peter Gabriel
Every summer has its anthem, a beer-swilling, under-age-seducing, busted-for-drunk-driving tune sung by millions of schoolless American teens in their Camaros. One can trace the history of this country back through these songs: from "Sharp Dressed Man" to "Jump" to "Baba O'Reilly" to "Brown Sugar," all the way back to "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Great Balls of Fire." Record companies have always identified hot weather with cool cash.
Well, this season's big moneymaker appears to be a Motownesque ditty called "Sledgehammer" by erstwhile art-rocker Peter Gabriel. As summer swill singles go, "Sledge" is a real doozy, the slowed-down tempo perfect for dancing (or doing anything else) in a sand dune. Perhaps if "Sledge" was a Van Halen song, I could really get excited. But coming from Gabriel, one of few rock performers who writes intelligent and adult material, this song and most of So hit me about as hard as a three-day-old Miller Light.
Ever since leaving Genesis about eight years ago, Gabriel has become an innovator and an active conscience in rock. His early single "Biko," which sets lyrics about South African repression to eerie synth guitar and tribal rhythms, proved to be a big hit at the recent Amnesty International benefit concert. But old Gabriel fans are going to hear little or none of his former complexity on So. Instead, Gabriel has filled this album with a bunch of love songs that are equally pretty and banal. In short, this will probably be the best Phil Collins album ever made.
There are some redeeming spots, however, amidst Gabriel's first foray into the blissful world of pop. "Red Rain," though hampered by insufferable plasma images, conjures up memories of past highlights like "San Jacinto" and "Here Comes The Flood." On the flip side of the disk, "Mercy Street" successfully tiptoes the line between Muzak and minimalism on the strength of poetic images like "Mercy Street in your daddy's arms again." While they don't compare with anything on Gabriel's third eponymous album, these two songs at least show that the former art-rocker remembers something from his past.
The remainder of So is competent but meaningless. Although Gabiel's scratchy voice is perfectly at home singing funky love songs like "That Voice Again" and "In Your Eyes," his conception of what makes a good love song remains hazy and mired in cliches. These two tunes feature overly generalized and hence pointless lyrics set to often generic synth harmonies. Although Gabriel is capable of invading the mind of a political assassin, as he proved on the earlier "Family Snapshot," he seems absolutely at a loss to express anything interesting in his more amorous pieces. And his attempt at satirizing the pursuit of success, "Big Time," seems strikingly out of place on an album geared to appeal to the intoxicated youth of summer.
Perhaps, the greatest miscarriage on the album is Gabriel's one protest song, "We Do What We're Told (milgram's 37)." The title, with its reference to the famous sociological experiment testing mass brutality and conformity, promises a great statements, but all we get is some idle synth diddling topped with a few hoarse words. Now, I can understand the need to be unanthematic, especially given the subject matter of the "song," but in his quest for understatement, Gabriel barely creates any noise. Like much of this album, "We Do" leaves us saying "So What?"
Frankly, in the middle of the summer, the world needs true adults more than ever. Along with Elvis Costello, Gabriel is one of the few rock musicians who has the poise and dignity and talent to carry off the tough task of acting like a complex human being. It is a shame that someone with his ability writes beach blanket anthems--even great ones like "Sledgehammer." After all, there are enough David Lee Roths around to handle the kids.