I also never particularly liked So and perhaps my opinion is basically in line with John Mc and George Starostin despite it being Peter Gabriel's most popular album it’s a disappointing album compared to earlier albums like III or Security or later albums like Us. I found the album to be overly produced, repetitive and monotonous despite some good songs like Red Rain.
I didn’t necessarily have much expectation when I decided to listen to an essential demo recording of an album that I didn’t particularly care for in the 25th-anniversary box set.
Surprisingly I was blown away it’s one of the most unique and original albums I have ever heard and perhaps even make me re-evaluate Peter Gabriel's solo career.
So DNA essentially splices three stages of his recording process. Demo recording is where Peter Gabriel is alone with the piano and occasionally accompanied by a beatbox, the second stage is where the details are being worked out with Peter Gabriel on the piano or synthesiser accompanied by a guitarist and various rhythm tracks. Then the final studio arrangement that we are familiar with is the album.
Now reading the description what I was expecting was something like John Lennon’s “Evolution Documentary” from the boxset of Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. Where they show the evolution of the songwriting and creative process where starting with a demo of John Lennon on an acoustic guitar or piano with a dodgy recording then progressing to later demo recordings with the band and then progressing to the final studio recordings. You essentially hear the progression of the songwriting in chronological order of the various takes of that song. So while the song is informative in learning about the creative purposes they are not intended to be considered an artistic product to be the judge of its value in itself.
“So DNA” is NOT like the “Evolution Documentary” and despite splicing multiple demo recordings and the finished product it is considered an artist statement in and of itself. This is more akin to a remix album where the mixer is trying to create an alternative arrangement of the songs and reinventing the song but using demo recordings to achieve this. This is because the recordings alternate between the three stages of the recordings and sometimes overlap with each other (for example you may hear a stripped-down demo recording and then a studio recording and then going back to the demo recording for dramatic effect).
Summary of what makes “So DNA” great and unique within Peter Gabriel's catalogue
- I am somewhat sceptical of Peter Gabriel’s world beat and music based on a repeating groove in general. Sometimes it feels overly repetitive. Splicing stripped-down demos with intermediate arrangement demos and slick final studio products introduces dynamic and arrangement variability within the song. Suddenly these repetitive songs are no longer repetitive because the arrangement keeps on changing. This arrangement also introduces a dynamic arc in the song where there is now contrast and build-up. So DNA is by far the most dynamic variable album of his solo career. The theatricality and dynamic arc that was so common in Genesis that was somewhat dampened in Peter Gabriel’s solo career (I wish there were more songs like Family Snapshot) is now present in these demo recordings. At times I find Peter Gabriel’s solo career to be more emotionally cold by introducing contrast/build-up to the song.
- I also think So is overproduced and overly slick. Listening to these more lo-fi recording sounds more natural and emotional. Peter Gabriel is one of the greatest vocalists of all time but this can be dampened when the arrangement is smoothed over. However, having him sing in a stripped-down arrangement with just him and a piano emphasises his strength as a vocalist as well. These DNA recordings show off Peter Gabriel as a singer/songwriter which is not that common in his career (I guess something like Here comes the flood). The intermediate demo recordings have more of a rock edge compared to the finished product where the guitars and bass guitar have more distortion that gives a sharp edge to the songs.
- Originality/uniqueness. Some albums have lo-fi raw productions and there is an album with slick studio productions. I can’t think of any album in existence that mixes those two and make it sound cohesive and greater than the sum of its part. The only example I can think of is George Martin’s Beatles remix album Love with the song Strawberry Fields Forever where he spliced demo recordings with the final mix. However, that is one song, not an entire album.
I should give examples of how the “So DNA” achieves this.
Red Rain DNA – Red Rain starts with just Peter Gabriel on the piano and beatbox. Then sudden soft/loud shift where the intermediate recording with the full band joins in. This then develops into the full studio recording version of the song. However, a brilliant touch is at the end with the song ending with the demo version of Peter Gabriel by himself on the piano which is a nice comedown.
Sledgehammer – Peter Gabriel playing a groove on the piano with a beat box in a lofi recording (Peter Gabriel’s voice is very reminiscent of Robert Wyatt). Suddenly the organ comes in from a different demo recording. Then there is the famous Sledgehammer riff. However, what is great is that the song continuously shifts from multiple different demos recording going from stripped down to full arrangement and then back to stripped down arrangement. There is also a nice touch that the horns only appear at the end of the song which makes it a climactic celebratory ending of the song. This arrangement decision prevents the boredom I get from listening to repetitive groove base music.
Don’t Give Up – The DNA managed to salvage this song. The song starts with just Peter Gabriel singing over synth strings in a stripped-down arrangement. It sounds so much more personal and beautiful this way. The chorus of Don’t Give Up sounds so much power with just Peter Gabriel quietly singing the chorus alone by himself in a soft low voice. This then leads to the intermediate demo recording where the guitar groove and the drum machine appear with Peter Gabriel playing around with an almost improvisation melody. which then leads to the final studio recording with the famous bass and the Kate Bush backing vocals and then finishes off with the Don’t Give Up groove. I found the original studio version to be cheesy, however, in the context of this arrangement, it is emotionally powerful. Kate Bush's backing vocals work so much better as a contrast to a sparse arrangement rather than be ever-present throughout the song.
We Do What We’re Told – The original version sounds like a murky underwritten piece. The DNA version has multiple parts, solo piano intro There is an addition of solo piano intro, then the midsection of just the distorted chords with atmospheric noise and then the last part of the We Do What We’re Told where the studio version returns however the vocals are more prevalent and more dramatic, the sounds effects are more audible to create a more disturbing atmosphere (in the original version it just sounds murky)
In Your Eyes – Starts with backing tape with the percussion/guitar/backing vocals grooving for a minute which builds up and then suddenly abruptly stops leaving behind Peter Gabriel on a solo piano in a stripped-down arrangement. This was a brilliant creative decision as it sounds like there is a build but the climax is not something louder and epic but personal with Peter Gabriel alone on the piano. That he is so a great performer that he alone on the piano is the climax. I imagined if this was performed live you would have a band playing and then suddenly they abruptly stop. The spotlight then shines on Peter Gabriel as he begins playing.
The solo piano version of In Your Eyes then developed into the intermediate demo recordings which then develops into the final studio recordings. However, it will alternate with the intermediate demo recordings to create some contrast and also make the love song sounds more personal. I love the ending coda with the whole repeating “In Your Eyes” refrain but having the piano high up in the mix which causes a ringing ending of the song.
In Summary, the “So DNA” recording synthesises the stripped-down personal singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel with the theatrical dramatic and dynamic Peter Gabriel the world-beat Peter Gabriel creating the quintessential album of his solo career and summarising all his strengths. It does this by splicing various demo recordings with studio recordings to create an album that sounds unique and one-of-a-kind.
The only flaw of this album is that the songs weren’t crafted with this arrangement in mind and that this arrangement was created after the fact. In an ideal world, Peter Gabriel would have said to himself I am going to create an album that mixes demo lo-fi recordings with smooth studio recording and meticulously arranged and record the parts so they seamlessly join from one section to another. However, as this arrangement was created after the fact, you can hear the cutting/splicing that these are various recordings that aren’t meant to mix. This is what stopped this from being a Hex F/10 15/15 type album
As It is it’s a Hex E 14/15