For me it’s difficult to really categorize Peter Gabriel and I like that fact. He’s got some super popular songs that put him in high rotation when the “M” in MTV still stood for “Music”. So is he a “pop” artist? The high level of musicianship on his albums might suggest a “progressive” label much like Rush or Yes. This is another reason I’m not a fan of labels and categories.
First off, I think this is one of those fantastic “complete” albums, one that can and should frequently be heard as a complete work from beginning to end with no disruptions or any “shuffle” buttons. I also recommend listening to it on the cleanest source you can get. My dad wasn’t very musically inclined, but he did give me some great advice that still holds up today with all of the technology that has changed the way we find, purchase and listen to our music. He said, “Spend some money and get yourself a really great pair of headphones”. He was right. If you don’t have a studio quality environment, you can really get the music into your head with a great pair of “cans”. I’m not talking about those white earbuds, I’ve got a bunch of those and they are fine for something portable and convenient. Go get yourself some nice headphones.
So, I’m just going to throw in my 2 cents as an educated and professional musician. These are my own observations and you may or may not agree with them. Whichever way you look at it, remember – you are right. Music is an art form and a form of communication. This is just how I see it for myself.
Red Rain: It’s in E minor which is a great key for us guitar players! We LOVE E minor! For the most part, the verse is an E minor groove. This is a great example of being able to create melody over a single chord. I do this kind of idea frequently with clients. If you are a guitar player, or play any melodic or harmonic instrument for that matter, I suggest learning the vocal melody to this song. It will open up melodic possibilities to you and also show you how the writer is using scales, triads etc in order to create his melody. The chorus is a standard progressions in a minor key – VI / VII. Something else you practicing musicians should be familiar with. It’s a funny coincidence to me that so many Judas Priest and Iron Maiden songs use the exact same chord progressions but create totally different styles of music.
Sledgehammer: a huge hit for Gabriel. E flat Mixolydian this time. It’s a major scale with a flat seventh. Once again – learn the melody on your instrument and it will teach you things. “You could have a steam train, if you just lay down your tracks”. Hmm… think about it.
Don’t Give Up: If you don’t know by now, I have playlists in my iTunes that are for specific musical examples – songs that use modes, certain chord progressions, odd meter etc. This one is in my playlist for odd meter. It’s ¾ time. To me, ¾ can be quite powerful. It makes you think a little about the timing and it also pushes and drives the song. I think the time signature really drives the song even though the dynamic is very soft. So the combination of “drive” from the time signature and “passion” from the soft dynamic and the fantastic vocal performances to me equal “powerful”.
That Voice Again: C# Mixolydian for the chorus, and C minor for the verse. The progression for the verse is very close to All Along the Watchtower. In fact try playing the solo for Hendrix’ version of “Watchtower” over the verse. This songs tempo is a little quicker, but not much.
In Your Eyes: Bm for the verse, E Mixolydian for the chorus. Are you starting to see some recurring patterns here? There’s such a tremendous value in analyzing your favorite artists albums, not just one or two songs. This gives you great insight into the songwriting characteristics that make them your favorites. Maybe you like the artists so much because whether you know it or not, they are using your favorite scales or modes, progressions and musical ideas. Hmmm …more food for thought.
Mercy Street: If you don’t know the meaning behind the song, Google it and read about it. Then listen to the song again. The key is C# minor. Notice how the verse melody cascades its way downward to eventually land on the root note at the end of each verse phrase. When he reaches that note, I feel his performance is indicating a sense of surrender or resignation. Is this a part of how Gabriel communicates the sadness in the content? Just an observation. It’s a brilliant track, dark, but brilliant.
Big Time: G# minor. If you take the notes in the bass line and the notes in the verse melody you essentially get G# Dorian, for a little while. Listen to the chords changing making it Aeolian and Dorian. Notice how he can use some nice key changes and still make the song flow without any disruption to the flow. When you can do this in a pop song like this it’s fantastic. At the end of the song his descending melody “big, big, big …” skips right over the 6th, which would define the key as Dorian or Aeolian. But he goes right around it. Pretty cool idea.
We Do What We’re Told to Do (Milgram’s 37): Wait, this was 1986 right? Before the terms “techno” or “emo” were used? Nice example of how you can create a terrific track and still have no definable verse or chorus. The track almost sounds incomplete, like you’re waiting for the rest of the song, then it fades out.
This is the Picture (Excellent Birds): Ok, so what do I want you to notice in this song? Essentially it’s F minor, but what is the other twist that he’s used already once before on this album? It’s in the chorus. It’s the use of ¾ time again. Notice how it goes back and forth between 4/4 in the verse and ¾ in the chorus.
“So” there you have it. Peter Gabriel’s So. I hope you enjoyed my take on the album. Maybe you’ll hear some different things in it the next time you listen to it. Maybe some of these ideas will find their way into your playing and writing. Thanks for reading!