Peter Gabriel has recently turned his attention to covering songs by other artists. He now returns to his own body of work, reinterpreting earlier material with a 46-piece classical ensemble, dubbed the New Blood Orchestra and conducted by Ben Foster.
For some pop stars and rockers, the later career symphonic album is a black eye in an otherwise distinguished discography. But throughout his career, Gabriel has strived to create music with an epic sweep and richly hued soundscape, and his recordings have long incorporated a diverse palette of instruments to enflesh the material. Thus, adding the symphonic treatment to many of his songs is an apt, indeed well nigh inevitable, next step in their evolution. John Metcalfe has collaborated with Gabriel in the past, and his arrangements never jar with the spirit of the originals. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean that they treat the original recordings as holy writ either. In fact, New Blood is often at its best when songs are deconstructed a bit to reveal new facets. “In Your Eyes” is given a spirited string introduction which then serves as an accompaniment figure, replacing the syncopated drumbeat one heard on its So iteration; imparting a post-minimalist vibe to the song.
I’ve long thought of “San Jacinto” as a late prog epic that yearned to be a symphonic tone poem: and so it is here. Meanwhile, “Solisbury Hill” has its guitar riffs taken over with jaunty flair by strings, remaining an effervescent popsong with, in typical fashion for Gabriel, a far more weighty and autobiographical backstory submerged in the lyrics.
Even more “groove-oriented” songs like “Digging in the Dirt” are dealt with deftly by Metcalfe, with ricocheting lines between brass and winds giving toes ample opportunity to tap. Perhaps only “Downside Up” strikes one as a bit too familiarly adorned with patterns from symphonic rock albums past. Of course, effective arrangements mean little if a singer isn’t up to the task of tackling the songs. A few of the keys of songs have been lowered in deference to the intervening decades, but Gabriel is still in fine voice: an expressive interpreter with excellent control of his instrument.
While one eagerly awaits the next serving of brand new material from Peter Gabriel, New Blood is no mere stopgap, but an interesting recasting of his catalog that’s well worth exploring.