Peter Gabriel: “New Blood”
New Blood is the second Peter Gabriel in as many years, and, in execution, it follows an exceedingly similar template to the album that came before it. Given that this is a man notorious for taking as many as ten years between albums– and going to painstaking lengths to ensure that each release has a very distinct character from the one that preceded it– that has to mean something. Some critics have regarded the rapid advent of New Blood as some sort of response to the fact that the Scratch My Back ran out of steam; Gabriel’s collection of cover songs was meant to be followed with an anthology of other artists covering his songs, but that never panned out, so he’s taken it upon himself to cover his classic material. But I think the rapid succession of albums can be explained much more simply: He’s just on a roll. Scratch My Back sounded like a veteran artist rediscovering his delight in recording music, and New Blood continues that exploratory tone. Together, these albums represent the best pop-oriented albums Gabriel has made since So.
But of course, the singer’s desire for each project to stand on its own hasn’t abandoned him, so it should come as no surprise that, if New Blood trades in many of the same conceptual tropes as Scratch My Back— both albums offer us drumless, guitarless recreations of older songs– its character is fundamentally very different. Scratch My Back reminded me of something I’d always known about Peter Gabriel, but had long forgotten– that is, that he knows his way around a pop song. (How could I forget such a thing about the man who gave us “Sledgehammer,” you ask? Well, twenty years of OVO and Up will have that effect.) The album made a solid case for Gabriel as one of rock’s most soulful singers, and a discerning interpreter of pop songs old and new.
There is nothing on New Blood that I would call a pop song, really– save for “Solsbury Hill,” which is tacked on as a bonus. You might make the case for something like “Don’t Give Up,” but it stretches close to seven minutes and features ethereal, art-ravaged singing from Ane Brun, which means that, like everything else here, it seems designed to implement the orchestra in a way that reminds us of Gabriel’s long-standing art-rock cred. And indeed, if the last album nodded to his love of concise songcraft, this album betrays his love for stretching things out into jagged and sometimes circuital arrangements. It has more to do with trilogy of self-titled albums, his Genesis work, or yes, even his instrumental soundtracks than it does “Sledgehammer” or “Steam,” neither of which are present here.
The initial impact of this project, then, is a little less pleasing to me than Scratch My Back. That album was warm and welcoming; this one at first seems cold and distant, maybe even– God help us– pretentious. But once I found my way amidst these odd sonic structures, some of which hold only a slight resemblance to the original recordings, I realized that the merits of New Blood are not to be denied. Once again, Gabriel is turning to orchestral music for fresh inspiration, and rather than sound like a glorified legacy package or quasi-“greatest hits” assortment, this music has the rush of new discovery and open horizons. His own self-imposed limitations have forced Gabriel to re-imagine his own canon in ways that are strange and surprising, and pretty much uniformly wonderful.
Whether any of them could ever surpass the original recordings, of course, will be a matter of contention. I will throw my lot behind the new versions of “San Jacinto” and “The Rhythm of the Heat,” though. These are among the most rhythmic compositions this beat-centered songwriter ever penned, and the sheer audacity of re-imagining them in this setting is staggering. But what really amazes is how Gabriel and arranger John Metcalfe really dig into all the colors of the orchestra to come up with dynamic and hypnotic arrangements that make them feel full and complete– like this is how they were meant to be performed. I also love the new “Red Rain,” which renders the apocalyptic storm of the original in even bolder, more vivid colors.
Appropriately, the selections trend toward Gabriel’s more dramatic, art-centric songs– a moving “Wallflower,” deliriously creepy “Intruder,” and shimmering “Mercy Street” are also highlights. At times the arrangements sound like they were conceived by a film composer. That he throws in a block of So songs might seem at first to be at odds with the nature of this project, but “Red Rain,” “Mercy Street,” and “Don’t Give Up” all fit the trappings of this project well. “In Your Eyes,” meanwhile, might be one of the toughest re-imaginings to swallow, if only because that song is so widely loved and because this version doesn’t just radicalize the arrangement, but the very melody. Most exciting of all might be the previously blase or forgotten songs that Gabriel utterly redeems here: “Downside Up” is just a joy, and “Darkness,” one of the few memorable tracks from Up, benefits from a more organic arrangement, one that more precisely highlights the song’s schizophrenic nature.
Put the two albums together in a box set and you could call it one of Gabriel’s finest hours; as stand-alone projects, both offer considerable charms and ample reward for attentive listeners. As for New Blood specifically, I’ll say only that Gabriel isn’t just looking to his past here. There is no inertia, no nostalgia coloring this disc. This is an album with its eyes cast toward the future, and they give me hope that this arc in Gabriel’s story is just beginning.