Last year, Peter Gabriel gave us the superb Scratch My Back, a cover songs album intended to be the first part of a sort of mutual appreciation project. Gabriel’s grand plan was that his record would be later joined by another release featuring the artists whose tunes he reinterpreted, doing him the same favor with his material. However, that intended companion album has since stalled, so for his latest LP New Blood, the musician has decided to pick up the fumbled ball and carry it to the goal line by essentially covering himself.
Incorporating selections from all corners of Gabriel’s solo songbook, New Blood follows the template established by Scratch My Back, offering familiar compositions in new arrangements (once again overhauled by regular Gabriel collaborator John Metcalfe) where rock instrumentation is replaced by orchestral strings, woodwinds, and brass, with piano making occasional appearances. With Ben Foster conducting the 46-member-strong New Blood Orchestra, this enterprise lends itself most suitably to touching ballads and sweeping emotional gestures, so don’t be surprised that certain, more energetic Gabriel staples such as “Sledgehammer” and “Shock the Monkey” didn’t make it onto this tracklist.
Though following similar remits, what mainly separates the two records is subtlety. Scratch My Back was carefully considered, its grandiose moments tempered by an understated delicacy that was found in abundance. New Blood often trades in high drama, inundating much of the record in epic symphonic dread. “Rhythm of the Heat” is dominated by ebbing, thrusting strings that might bring to mind an impending battle upon the plains of Middle-Earth. Later on, “Darkness” is characterized by an ominous march rhythm and pulse-pounding performance by Gabriel that adds hearty slices of danger to its fairy tale vibe.
The melodrama can be overbearing in places, and Metcalfe’s approach threatens to rob many of the songs of their individuality by making them conform to the album’s game plan. Other reworkings simply do not pan out. The record’s overblown reinterpretation of “In Your Eyes” — the soundtrack to John Cusack’s career-making moment in the film Say Anything — has no chance of living up to the immortal original. Instead of the sighing, stirring beauty of the studio version, the New Blood Orchestra offers up a rendition that sounds like intro music to a National Geographic TV special, gazelles galloping across the savannah and all. On the duet “Don’t Give Up”, Ane Brun’s choked, mousey groaning are not an adequate substitute for the aching faerie swoon of the song’s archetypal other half, Kate Bush. At the end of the record, the listener is offered “A Quiet Moment”, an entire track of barely audible bird chirps and flowing water that is at best a curious diversion.
Don’t think that all this grousing means that New Blood is deeply flawed, though. There are indeed instances where the orchestral overhauls suit the material quite nicely, like on the already-foreboding “Intruder” (understandably lacking the Phil Collins drum track that virtually launched the ‘80s AOR drum sound) and the majestic sweep of “Red Rain”. On “San Jacinto”, a steady pitter-patter of woodwinds builds up to a chesty body-elevating surge that subsides to a relaxed calm by the track’s end. Although a bonus track, the Orchestra’s take on Gabriel’s first solo single “Solsbury Hill” might well be the LP’s standout; the jaunty upbeat tone of the song is a welcome contrast to the somberness that populates the rest of the record.
What elevated Scratch My Back above mere novelty was that its stripped down arrangements placed the spotlight squarely on Gabriel’s vocal abilities, which carried the album magnificently. Warm-voiced, soulful, and precise at slipping into his higher falsetto range at the right moments, Gabriel’s performances on New Blood are faultless — in fact, the man sounds better here than he did on the previous LP. Hearing Gabriel at full power at the emotional high-point midway through “Don’t Give Up” is a monumentally satisfying experience. On “Darkness”, he offers of demonstration of his range as a performer, switching from his normal voice to a hoarse, scary growl like some prog rock Jekyll and Hyde.
In spite of his continued exploration of orchestral arrangements, Gabriel’s foray into overly familiar territory for him means that New Blood can’t be the revelation that Scratch My Back was. Maybe New Blood comes up a little short in comparison too because we know what to expect from a Peter Gabriel version of a Peter Gabriel song, whereas the singer tackling Radiohead or Magnetic Fields was bound to offer a new angle. There’s no denying that voice, though — histrionic backing or not, the man proves once again that he can still handle himself quite capably in front of a microphone more than 40 years since he began his career as a member of Genesis. Though hardly essential, New Blood nevertheless features many fine performances, and there’s room for the record to prove the true depth of its merits upon further listens.