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"So much larger than life."
Near the end of this Classic Albums episode, record producer Daniel Lanois says that when he listens to the album he knows it was "made by a young man who did nothing else for a year." That's how long it took for Peter Gabriel, Lanois, and a slew of musicians and singers to make his 1986 masterpiece, So. For most musicians, a yearlong recording and mixing process would suggest trouble behind the scenes. For Gabriel, it was just business as usual.
Facts of the Case
Twenty-five years later, So is a tougher sell. The album is mired in '80s production techniques that sound antiquated to modern ears. For many music fans, the album's enduring cultural significance has been reduced to John Cusack's hoisted boom box in Say Anything. That's where Eagle Records' Classic Albums series comes in. Each hour-long episode digs into an iconic album, talking to the musicians and engineers responsible. In this case, that's a lot of people.
I'm a big fan of the Classic Albums series. There's no better way to experience some of the greatest records ever made. This episode is no exception, even if So's complicated production strains to fit into the 58-minute runtime.
So came to life in a rented a farmhouse in rural England. There, Gabriel and Lanois brought in a variety of musicians, including Laurie Anderson (who co-wrote "This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)"), French drummer Manu Katché, and singer Kate Bush. As with other series entries, Peter Gabriel: So follows a loose track-by-track structure, using the songs "Red Rain," "Sledgehammer," "Don't Give Up," "Mercy Street," "This is the Picture," and "In Your Eyes" to tell the album's story. Also like other episodes, that story is told by highlighting specific parts of the recording at the mixing board.
This track-specific breakdown is a hallmark of the Classic Albums series, but breaking down So isn't so simple. Gabriel didn't make the album with the standard rock quartet. His layered approach is too complex to cover in an hour. The musical dissection is limited to a bass line here, and a drum pattern there. Although we see plenty of Lanois sitting behind the board, he doesn't spend nearly enough time twiddling the knobs. It's fascinating to hear him talk about how Peter Gabriel's change of heart about banning cymbals on the album led to the hi-hat intro on "Red Rain" recorded by The Police drummer Stewart Copeland, or Gabriel's excitement over getting the Memphis Brass to play on "Sledgehammer," but there's just too much ground to cover.
Peter Gabriel: So might do the best possible job distilling a year-long process into less than an hour, but it's hard not to be a little disappointed. Compared to other episodes in the series, it goes into less detail about specific songs, and has less music from the album. Song clips that are included tend to be too short. The episode rockets along, using small moments as shorthand for the album's big musical ideas. It's a fun peek behind the scenes on a landmark album. I just wish there was more.
The more I review Blu-rays, the more I appreciate lossless audio. If Peter Gabriel: So had more music in it, that upgrade might be worth it. Instead, the documentary is mostly talking head interviews. Interesting stuff, but hardly a showcase for hi-def audio, or video. The 1080i 1.78:1 video is sharp, with strong color and detail in the new interview segments. The archival material doesn't look as good, of course, but it's a solid transfer. Audio is presented as LPCM 2.0 Stereo. The included music sounds great, although most of the track consists of people talking. If nothing else, it's a missed opportunity to showcase the fact that So was recently remastered, released in a variety of formats—including an "immersion" box set with the album, live concert, early recordings, and a DVD copy of this Classic Albums episode.
The real advantage of buying this episode on home media is that it includes an additional 35 minutes of segments not included in the episode proper: "Big Time" (4:14); Gabriel's involvement in "Amnesty Tours" (8:18), "The Making of Sledgehammer" (12:18) with help from the Aardman Animations studio; and a deeper look at the African rhythms of "In Your Eyes" (10:41), featuring some of the most satisfying mixing board sequences of the entire documentary.
It would be easy to dismiss Peter Gabriel's So as an artifact of the 1980s, but Eagle Records reminds us that there's more to this record than a song in a Cameron Crowe movie. The Classic Albums series continues to be an invaluable resource for music fans who want to delve into their favorite records, even if there's too much going on in this album to cover in an hour. It's still wonderful to hear giants like Gabriel and Daniel Lanois reminiscing about the creation of one of the best albums of the '80s. The episode doesn't take full advantage of the hi-def format, but as a companion piece to the newly remastered CD, it's a great way to celebrate So's 25th anniversary.
This will be my testimony: Not guilty!
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