Saturday, 11 May 2013

Albums for Life: 7: Peter Gabriel: So

and I am walking and looking
and this is no dream
just my oily life
where the people are alibis
and the street is unfindable for an
entire lifetime
Anne Sexton (From 45 Mercy Street)

I've always loved Gabriel's voice, from early Genesis onwards. As with Costello; I lean towards the quieter moments; which probably says more about me than it does about either singer. I'm a sucker for tender and there's tenderness aplenty on this wonderful record.
'Sledgehammer' does what is says on the tin and sold the album, but there's plenty of hush here too.
I love it when Gabriel does 'intense'.

Amazing to think that initially the album wasn't well received. The Guardian's Alexis Petrides condemned 'So' as "an album packed with ultra-commercial priapic cod-funk" and "a ruthless bid for mainstream success." The Fairlights do flicker and Daniel Lanois' production is unusually robust for him, but it's still a co star, vital to the musical broth; flavoured by African rhythms, techno, prog, pop and soul. A seemingly rich stew but tasteful and (at times) surprising delicate. I never tire of the duet with Kate Bush on 'Don't Give Up', but for me the high point of many high points will always be 'Mercy Street'. I know that I've posted about this song before (with the recent release of a box set of the remastered 'So', complete with a couple of discs featuring live versions of the songs; 25 years old if you can believe it...) and I don't want to suggest that the album is grand for this track only but... 'Mercy Street' is without doubt my favourite Gabriel moment; one of my favourite ever songs; it highlights that wonderful timbre. Interesting, as I could not so easily choose just one finest moment from other favourites, the likes of Waits/Buchanan/Springsteen/MacAloon all have back catalogues to die for but (aside from maybe 'Thunder Road' and 'Born to Run') it's hard to nail them to one song.
'Mercy Street' is sublime on so many levels; the writing, arrangement, recording, performance.
It's perfect, just perfect.
The song was inspired by poet Anne Sexton. 

Sexton was troubled, lost, crippled by depression and tried to recognise and shape her history using poetry as therapy. She wrote essentially for herself and found an empathetic audience only after her suicide. Her search for relief took her in search of the house where she once lived with her father as a child, 45 Mercy Street. 
She walked the streets but couldn't find the address. 
Her search for identity and 'home' are elements picked up by Gabriel in his beautifully empathetic song.
It's emotional presence may be better felt after reading Sexton's poem:

45 Mercy Street

In my dream,
drilling into the marrow
of my entire bone,
my real dream,
I'm walking up and down Beacon Hill
searching for a street sign -
Not there.

I try the Back Bay.
Not there.
Not there.
And yet I know the number.
45 Mercy Street.
I know the stained-glass window
of the foyer,
the three flights of the house
with its parquet floors.
I know the furniture and
mother, grandmother, great-grandmother,
the servants.
I know the cupboard of Spode
the boat of ice, solid silver,
where the butter sits in neat squares
like strange giant's teeth
on the big mahogany table.
I know it well.
Not there.

Where did you go?
45 Mercy Street,
with great-grandmother
kneeling in her whale-bone corset
and praying gently but fiercely
to the wash basin,
at five A.M.
at noon
dozing in her wiggy rocker,
grandfather taking a nap in the pantry,
grandmother pushing the bell for the downstairs maid,
and Nana rocking Mother with an oversized flower
on her forehead to cover the curl
of when she was good and when she was...
And where she was begat
and in a generation
the third she will beget,
with the stranger's seed blooming
into the flower called Horrid.

I walk in a yellow dress
and a white pocketbook stuffed with cigarettes,
enough pills, my wallet, my keys,
and being twenty-eight, or is it forty-five?
I walk. I walk.
I hold matches at street signs
for it is dark,
as dark as the leathery dead
and I have lost my green Ford,
my house in the suburbs,
two little kids
sucked up like pollen by the bee in me
and a husband
who has wiped off his eyes
in order not to see my inside out
and I am walking and looking
and this is no dream
just my oily life
where the people are alibis
and the street is unfindable for an
entire lifetime.

Pull the shades down -
I don't care!
Bolt the door, mercy,
erase the number,
rip down the street sign,
what can it matter,
what can it matter to this cheapskate
who wants to own the past
that went out on a dead ship
and left me only with paper?

Not there.

I open my pocketbook,
as women do,
and fish swim back and forth
between the dollars and the lipstick.
I pick them out,
one by one
and throw them at the street signs,
and shoot my pocketbook
into the Charles River.
Next I pull the dream off
and slam into the cement wall
of the clumsy calendar
I live in,
my life,
and its hauled up

You can gauge the song's effect on folk from this 2003 clip, taken from his legendary 'Growing Upwards' show in Milan.
The singers and players are as moved by the power of the song as the audience are.
I've followed it by the official video of the song.
I've then done the same thing (official video/Growing Upwards performance) for another highlight, the album's magnificent opener 'Red Rain'.


  1. I'm a big fan of Gabriel's 'melting face' album, but am not immune to the attractions of this one although I find the production a little overbearing at times.

  2. I'm afraid 'So' fell prey to the curse of 6 singles saturating the airwaves, to the extent that there was barely reason for me to buy the record. Just turn on the radio or MTV, impossible to shake it. Unlike say U2 , Bruce, Elton, Coldplay - I didn't jump ship or hold a grudge because my hero suddenly obtained blockbuster mainstream success. Perhaps because Gabriel remained private and low-key? (Although I've heard he's a prick!) The anthems here hold no sway anymore, however the quiet ones - Don't Give Up, In Your Eyes, Mercy Street are timeless and I'll always stop and listen to them on the radio or wherever. I've got the LP/CD, but I think that both remain untouched... 'So' is probably his "best", but I chose the first solo album (rain on windshield) for my pick. It's a damned good one too. Solsbury Hill, Modern Love, Here Comes The Flood...

  3. Silence in the ranks else I'll get my big stick out...
    I thought that this might ruffle feathers; I know what you mean about over saturation but this still works for me. Production is very much of its timer but it's the voice above the programming that makes everything work for me. There's something about a full blooded throttle over bloodless synths that can be beautiful. See also: Blue Nile, Robbie Robertson and (on occasion) David Sylvian...

  4. I loved this album at the time but don't return to it on a regular basis which I guess means it isn't deeply rooted. I would probably need a 'Play Off' between this and 'melting face' for a Top 20 place, although as I'm only doing a Top Ten I can defer that decision! I've always admired Gabriel's career and enjoyed his recent orchestral arrangements albums. His 'Passion' soundtrack is also an album I played to death. Looking forward to seeing him in October, playing the 'So' album with the original eighties band.

    1. We're seeing him in the O2 too Bazza. Which night are you going? We paid £95 each for tickets PLUS a £40 booking fee! For £230 plus I'm hoping for something special...

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Monday 21st - we're in the cheap seats, £50 each. I figured with a Gabriel concert, if we can see the screen we'll be fine! I saw him in 1983 at Crystal Palace football ground - I still have the ticket, £8.30!! I think the rise in Peter Gabriel may well be above that of inflation!

  5. There is much to enjoy on So. I don't see it as a cynical cash-in given that Gabriel spent over a Year recording it with Daniel Lanois.
    I enjoy greatly the bass in Sledgehammer.. Actually Levin's playing on the entire album is for me something that makes So a bit special. For me the standouts are Red Rain & In your Eyes.. With 'this is the picture' being an interesting oddity.

    I think the highpoint of Gabriel's career was Passion I reckon he had been working towards that album throughout his Solo career. It could be argued - by me not that you asked - that his song writing wanes after 1990.. Maybe partly to do with him becoming a World music patron and a bit of a benefit whore.

    Nevertheless, it's refreshing to see Gabriel feature in someone's top ten list..

    I enjoy the blog..
    Best wishes
    John F

    1. Levin's bass playing is an acquired taste. I know a few bassists (including Marcus) who aren't keen. The compressed sound doesn't allow for expression and apparently... he's not that tight! Mmm, sounds good to me and is vital to that Gabriel sound. I've just been playing Tom Waits' 'Raindogs' and he's on that too...
      Interesting hpw passionate folk are about 'Passion' (you and Bazza for a start). A brave move by Gabriel to leave his most potent and recognizable gift off the album. I need to listen again...
      'Benefit Whore' a bit harsh John. He does seem genuinely engaged with what he does and the World Music scene. Seems sadly true that it has taken his mind off his own work.
      I enjoyed the orchestral 'Scratch My Back' but really hope that he has another classic in him...
      Thanks for the visit John.

  6. I've never seen this version Trev. It's beautiful and so poignant, particularly now knowing the inspiration for the song.

    I love this album and it's one of my most played on my iPod. 'Don't Give Up' has always been one of my 'turn to songs' when I need to pick up myself, as is 'Everyone Hurts' by REM.

    The standout song on 'So' for me is 'In Your Eyes' - just beautiful, both lyrically and musically. Thanks for sharing Bro' - a lovely tune for a Sunday afternoon. x

    1. If you can get 'Growing Up' on DVD it is fantastic Katy. 2003 but really good quality...
      We need to test Skype for next Saturday...

  7. I've never owned a copy of So . It came out in a year when I was into shambolic jangly indie bands on one hand and celtic bands looking west on the other, and I thin again it suffered form over familiarity in that a lot of my friends really liked it so it was always on in peoples rooms. I'm glad being in the top 10 has given me an excuse to buy it. I'm also a big fan of melting face and my fav is either this one or going against the grain also 2002's Up so don't agree with John (although his comment has got me also buying a copy of the Passion. So all in all Mr Gabriel is 2 lps better off after your post!

    1. Make sure that you get the remaster David.
      I don't know if you enjoy musical DVDs but I really recommend the live 2003 show from Milan 'Growing Up'. It's a thrill, emotional, powerful. Gabriel's never been the most charismatic but something clicked that night. There's a moment when the Blind Boys of Alabama appear that is spine tingling...

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