It might seem like an obvious choice to perform a minimalist version of Peter Gabriel‘s So. Gabriel’s fifth album, and the first with its own name, So is the most ’80s of albums. It features so many of Gabriel’s career trademarks: Fairlight and Prophet synthesizers (and many others), sequencers, early drum machines, gated drums, etc. If there is any one album that captures the sound of ’80s record production, it’s So. (And that’s only fair since Gabriel invented so many of those conventions during his solo career.) So stripping it all away to focus on the songs might seem like an easy and obvious approach.
But whether or not it’s simple or obvious, “minimalist modern folk” husband and wife duo Lowland Hum has created a powerful record with their song-for-song cover of the entirety of So, cleverly titled So Low and released on May 19. The band mostly use few instruments, Daniel and Lauren’s voices, an acoustic guitar, a few loops, and a few judicial overdubs. It feels like the exact opposite approach to the material that Gabriel took when he wrote the songs.
But don’t mistake this for a record like Gabriel’s own New Blood, where Gabriel reinvented his own songs as orchestral pop. There’s way more space here and so few instruments that some moments are almost spartan. Lowland Hum play with Gabriel’s songs just enough to make some of them sound new, but mostly they adhere closely enough the originals that they are easy to place.
For instance, “Sledgehammer,” the album’s biggest hit, is just Lauren backed by Daniel, an acoustic guitar and (very briefly) a synthesizer, plus a backing vocal from Lauren. And it’s transformative – it’s an earnest folk love song, rather than a bouncy ’80s funk-soul track, perhaps best remembered for its video. (Don’t worry, they didn’t leave out the shakuhachi flute.)
On “Don’t Give Up,” one of Gabriel’s many collaborations with Kate Bush, Lowland Hum make it sound like it could actually have been written during the era of the Dust Bowl, which is what the song is about. Lauren and Daniel swap gender roles, with Daniel taking Bush’s part (which was originally intended for Dolly Parton). Again, there’s not much beyond their voices, just an acoustic guitar and a bass to start, with a subtle piano and later some electric guitar in the bridge.
On the the album’s most ionic song, “In Your Eyes,” Lowland Hum add a few more instruments and overdubs. Lauren plays a little bit with the melody to the “your eyes” refrain. But the song is mostly just her, a guitar, and a synthesizer (at least in the verses). Though Lauren’s delivery lacks a bit of the desperation of Gabriel’s, the song’s bones are revealed, and the pure emotion of the song carries through.
“Big Time” is a little cheeky, and Lowland Hum don’t lose that on an otherwise very earnest record. Stripped down at first to just voices, led by Daniel, and a piano, Gabriel’s lyrics mocking a certain kind of commercial success are given full focus. It’s so easy to ignore them in the original, but in this version they are right in your face.
Sometimes Peter Gabriel’s songwriting craft is lost in his innovative production. One of the great things about New Blood and And I’ll Scratch Yours was what they revealed about Gabriel the songwriter. And the thing about So Low is that it removes most of the window-dressing from an album full of, pardon the pun, so many different sounds. All that is left are Gabriel’s songs, performed prettily. We’re reminded that Peter Gabriel is a great songwriter, regardless of the elaborate production. And if we just remember Gabriel for gated drums or incorporating world music, or his innovative music videos, we’re missing a crucial part of his legacy. Fortunately, Lowland Hum are here to remind us.
You can listen to and purchase So Low on Bandcamp.