"SO." Peter Gabriel. Geffen.

The time may be right for Peter Gabriel. The English singer's multi-personality performances with Genesis were overshadowed by David Bowie in the early '70s, and punk and post-punk drew attention from his first four brilliant solo albums. But in the current drought of artistry, Gabriel stands out as never before.

What's more, his first album in over three years offers more of Gabriel's playful and comforting personae than any previous collection. As a writer, he seems far less anxious and anguished than he was when voicing the concerns of "Biko" or "Shock the Monkey." Some fans are going to miss that side, but while "So" has songs of great superficial charm it also has its depth charges. Above all, it offers an amazing variety of tones, moods, and topics and a consistently powerful level of expression.

One of the LP's joyful noises is "Sledgehammer," a Redding/Pickett-style romp that has a grand time exaggerating sexual slang and poses. (This first single is enhanced, too, by a smashing video--see Sound & Vision, Page 70.) The most supremely moving song is a duet with Kate Bush, "Don't Give Up." In it, Gabriel portrays a man with "no fight left" who's repeatedly comforted by Bush's voice of boundless care and love. Another tribute to the powers of love is the transcendently melodic "In Your Eyes," one of several arrangements showing Gabriel's continuing fascination with African music. It features a duet with noted Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour.

Even when the album turns toward darker thoughts, Gabriel conveys them in less needling contexts than in the past. "Mercy Street" (named after an Anne Sexton play and influenced by her writing), the visionary "Red Rain," "That Voice Again" (it's the parental voice in our heads that either helps or defeats us) and the minimalist "We Do What We're Told" all delve into troubled territory. But in each of them the spark of hope glows strongly and the music delivers the blows with grand, listenable strokes rather than rude shocks. This softer, moodier approach invites repeated listenings and deeper examination of the words than some of the jagged-edged Gabriel classics.

The album's only failure is "Big Time," a satire on ego and ambition that says nothing we haven't heard from lesser observers many times before, and whose ordinary funky music is as overblown as the song's central character. But one bad apple doesn't spoil the bunch. "So" is a great album, possibly Gabriel's best.

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