For me, Peter Gabriel has always been one of those singers who I thought could pretty much sing the phonebook and it would be interesting. That being said, for a myriad of reasons, it took me a while to finally get around to listening to New Blood. Once I did, my reaction was this: thank goodness. Thank goodness he sounds so much more energized re-interpreting his own songs with an orchestra than he did interpreting the songs of others (including the likes of David Bowie, Paul Simon, and Radiohead) on 2010’s remarkably dull Scratch My Back.
Gabriel is in fine voice too on the dramatic, inventive, and kinetic arrangement of Security‘s “The Rhythm of the Heat” which kicks off the proceedings.
One of the record’s most powerful moments comes on Security‘s “San Jacinto,” which is outfitted here with a cascading piano figure, woodwinds, and strings. Gabriel, even at 61, can knock the vocals on this one out of the park, straining at the top of his seemingly undiminished range. Despite the song being stripped to its core and despite not sporting one of Gabriel’s strongest melodies, it has a foreboding and a build all its own.
Indeed, while one might assume that the songs that would work best in these musical settings would be Gabriel’s more familiar and melodic tunes, that’s not always the case. Four songs from 1986’s So get the orchestral treatment here. “In Your Eyes” is all jaunty strings and overlapping melodies. The beauty of the song is there but the choice to strip things down for the verses may simply make you yearn for the understated and iconic but punchier original version or one of the jubilant live versions. “Mercy Street,” with its xylophones and triangles, is pretty but inessential and not all that different. Norwegian vocalist Ane Brun stands in for Kate Bush on a version of “Don’t Give Up” that again fails to surpass the original. The strongest of the So re-interpretations is “Red Rain,” given a dramatic string arrangement here that also makes good use of percussion.
Elsewhere, Gabriel’s vocals are a near whisper on “Intruder,” which trades the pounding drums of the original for cellos. The effect is dramatic and stagey but it somehow feels less dangerous than the original.
Much more sinister is the dynamic version of “Darkness” here, which begins like some kind of alternate Darth Vader theme before settling into a truly frightening split-personality Gabriel vocal.
Somewhat lighter in tone is the majestic “Downside Up” with Gabriel’s daughter Melanie joining him for a duet vocal.
“All the strangers look like family / All the family looks so strange / The only constant I am sure of / Is this accelerating rate of change,” Gabriel sings.
Two of the other highlights here are “Digging in the Dirt” from Us, which makes great use of staccato strings and of course the classic “Solsbury Hill,” which even a slightly stiff arrangement can’t mar. It sends the record out on a big, joyous note.
Are the new interpretations on New Blood going to make you forget the original recordings? Unlikely, but the record is much better than it could have been. It’s not some stuffy classical thing with Gabriel’s voice on top and it’s not Peter Gabriel for your parents or your parents’ parents. Ultimately, it proves to be a creative endeavor worthy of an artist who has been inventing and re-inventing himself in intriguing ways for decades.
Peter Gabriel: petergabriel.com