As the original vocalist and member of progressive rock/pop band Genesis, Peter Gabriel made the most of his tenure by learning the ins and outs of creating ambitious concepts and developing larger-than-life arrangements. Those creative processes never left him when he followed through with his solo career, garnering a taste for more tightly constructed records with a more focused musical direction. The songs featured on these albums have been so widely played that hearing someone attempt to play them through a karaoke machine isn’t a far-off imagination, but there’s a reason why these songs work so well that they’ve lived on through continuous play. Whatever that reason is, you can decide. Here we are, however, in 2011, with New Blood, the ninth studio album and more of an experiment of Gabriel’s that doesn’t feel too experimental. After all, what hasn’t he done yet to experiment with?
Last year, Peter Gabriel released his eighth studio album, Scratch My Back, which already attempted this experiment before. That is, Gabriel had been inspired to cover artists of the last three decades including Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields, and Radiohead. But not only to cover them, mind you. He rearranged them through orchestral means, utilizing a fully-staged orchestra and his voice. It was bold, yes, but interestingly enough, the songs worked because they were being touched by unseen hands. Gabriel was an outsider whose influence may have helped these bands out in the first place, but he was able to adapt these songs as a force outside of their realm. In that regard, the covers were nice companion pieces that were certainly well-produced, even if they didn’t exactly match the original track’s brilliance.
New Blood is entirely within the same vein as this previous effort – well-produced, nicely arranged, and slightly different. The only difference is that he’s applied this orchestral method to his own songs. The album spans fourteen lengthy tracks that cover a good span of his solo career, including fan favorites “In Your Eyes,” “Solsbury Hill,” and “Don’t Give Up.” Again, they are fan favorites, meaning these songs in their original formations exist in the hearts of tens or hundreds of thousands. These new orchestral arrangements are nice additions in their own right, and, like Scratch My Back before it, Gabriel again ensures fans that not only will they enjoy his original efforts, but that they will also find something new in these reworked versions. Sort of.
The tracks do take their time to settle us in, featuring swooning strings, dark piano and bombastic horn sections that very well align with Gabriel’s intentional epic scope. There’s no cutting around the edges here; New Blood just sounds beautifully orchestrated. Interestingly enough, though, these traits, even though more pronounced here, actually don’t sound too different from his original progressive pop creations. “San Jacinto,” for example, utilizes a grand piano in replacement for the electronic piano keys sampled in the original, or an oboe for the same purpose on “Intruder.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s offensive, but if you hadn’t heard the tracks in their original forms, you would never have known the difference. It’s as if you could really go either which way with any version featured here, and Gabriel has given you the choice to decide. He also has two tracks here which feature female vocalists, which do offer much softer and harmonious renditions.
Nothing is inherently wrong about New Blood. The experiment just isn’t nearly as surprising now that we kind of know what to expect here, and considering that some of the songs featured on this album feel like less progressive versions of his originals doesn’t really ask of anything new for fans. If this is your first trip into the solo work of Peter Gabriel, you might actually spend more time with this disc side-by-side with his original tracks in digital formats, trying to determine which one you think is better. It’s an album that begs for no attachment to Gabriel’s works, yet it really can’t escape.
Peter Gabriel’s New Blood is available Oct. 11th through EMI Music.