Last year's Scratch My Back saw Peter Gabriel reimagining his favourite songs by other artists - from Bowie to Bon Iver, Elbow to Paul Simon - via orchestral arrangements. No drums, no bass, no guitars. Taking that exquisite, elegiac work on tour - with the gigantic New Blood orchestra - necessitated adding some of his own material, similarly refashioned. So this time he's covering, if you will, his own stuff - radically reshaping it into forms both grander and sparser. Like its predecessor, New Blood is sonically minimalist but emotionally huge. The songs' raw nerves are laid bare, their emphases subtly altered and re-lit.
He doesn't simply revamp the obvious calling-card numbers: there's no Sledge Hammer or Games Without Frontiers, for example, and Biko isn't included despite a stirring rendition in the sibling 3D concert movie. Don't Give Up is here, with Ane Brun tackling the Kate Bush parts with a Björk-like tremble that seems jarring on first listen but increasingly moving with each return visit. More often than not, Gabriel appears intent on shifting the surface and context of the songs as much as possible. The Rhythm of the Heat without percussion is an insane idea on paper, but the 46-piece orchestra work their fingers to the bone finding equally valid ways to drive it forward. San Jacinto is completely unaffected and profoundly affecting, Gabriel's sandy, soulful voice somehow both understated and magniloquent.
There's a groundswell of opinion among fans and critics that his third solo album, usually known as Melt, was his finest, and its intense, twitchy, paranoid opening track Intruder is here lean and streamlined, its breathy presence even more accentuated. Arranger John Metcalfe realises Gabriel's ambitions throughout, whether it's on the comparatively jaunty Solsbury Hill or the sweeping power of Red Rain. And they can shuffle In Your Eyes all they like, but its chorus remains stoically hooky and uplifting.
Ever curious, Gabriel inserts five minutes of 'ambient noise' - in truth, near-silence - recorded on, where else, Solsbury Hill, by the name of A Quiet Moment. This album's a string-driven thing swinging between bravado and bleakness, and always beautiful.
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New Blood is a continuum of Peter’s previous Scratch My Back
album - the song-swap project where he covered the songs of others, all to an orchestral backing. Thanks to the precise arrangements by John Metcalf and Peter, the treatment was so successful that Peter very quickly knew where he wanted to take it next, and work began to apply the same principals to his own songs.
Great care has been taken, and much discussion shared, in deciding what songs were included on New Blood
. It wasn’t simply a case of giving the big numbers an orchestral re-rub. Indeed, some of the big hits are missing in favour of lesser-known material. But the intention wasn’t a deliberate obliqueness; it was more a case of finding the songs that would be enhanced by the massed strings, brass, woodwind and percussion.
“The orchestra provides different dimensions to the music that weren’t there initially,” confirms Peter. “Rock artists work slowly in studios, building up layer by layer, and one of the great, powerful advantages of an orchestra is all these musicians playing at one moment with all sorts of colours and personalities.”
And in front of orchestra, taking centre stage when necessary, retreating into the shadows when not, is Peter’s rich voice. Retaining its trademark emotive power, it returns to lyrics written 20 or 30 years ago, reinvesting them with new meaning and heightened poignancy.