After decades in music, Peter Gabriel decided to give up what he dubbed "the traditional weapons of the rock armory" on New Blood, a collection of reworked solo songs released in October 2011.
Rather than simply pasting on strings, he challenged himself to create without guitar, bass and drums.
"When you’ve been playing your hits for 30 years, you can get bored with it," Gabriel admitted in a talk that same year with the Kansas City Star. "It becomes not so interesting."
Working again with arranger John Metcalfe, who had earlier helped with a series of covers for Scratch My Back, Gabriel set about re-imagining his own music. Unlike with that earlier project, however, much of Gabriel’s solo catalog – "Intruder," "Solsbury Hill," "Red Rain," "Digging in the Dirt," "Signal to Noise," even "In Your Eyes" – was initially defined by its rhythmic invention.
It seemed large portions of New Blood, without the serpentine grooves and frisky cadences of their original forms, wouldn’t come easy. Still, Gabriel also memorably explored delicately wrought ballads like "Wallflower," "Biko," "Mercy Street" and, in particular, "San Jacinto" — a shattering meditation on the experience of Native Americans as their culture was ultimately subsumed. In those moments, New Blood found its early footing.
"Wallflower" changes little, since it was originally a just-as-starkly played rebuttal to the way Latin American political prisoners were being treated in the ’80s. But Metcalfe gives "San Jacinto" an almost translucent new backing arrangement, transforming it into a vocal feature for Gabriel. When the tune makes its dramatic third-quarter turn ("I hold the line!"), Gabriel cries with knifing power. These successes provided momentum to dive more deeply into songs where this chamber-music adaptation would provide a steeper challenge.
"If you want to give artists some support, make rules about what they can’t do," Gabriel told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "So, I’ve been trying to generate those rules for myself. In this case, John and I wanted to strip away the rock crutches: the guitars and drum kits. Obviously, we use classical percussion, but we thought this created a situation where I couldn’t hang on to the side any longer; I’d have to dive into the deep end of the pool and really explore the dynamic range of an orchestra."
Not all of it worked. "Mercy Street," missing the propulsive undercurrent of the original, lost something valuable in the telling. But by then it had become easier to see what drew Gabriel to this musical setting in the first place. Moments like "Intruder," which always felt like the unused music for a particularly bloody scene in a slasher flick, somehow took on an even darker portent. "Digging in the Dirt" rumbled along with a brassy, avant-garde musculature.
As Gabriel and Metcalfe gained confidence, they pushed harder at the edges of the concept. "More often than not, I instructed John to be more extreme," Gabriel told the Kansas City Star. "He did a fantastic job on ‘The Rhythm of the Heat,’ which was recorded with heavy percussion and African beats. It was really exciting to hear the drum parts played on orchestra instruments."
"In Your Eyes" was also borne anew in Metcalfe’s consistently understated new context, sounding more like a love song in the traditional sense of the word, but also more timeless: like a deeply expressed sentiment from any age. Even "Solsbury Hill," which initially came off a reedy shadow of its former self, eventually – as with much of the offbeat, but deeply involving New Blood – thrived on its own terms.
"You can suddenly get grandiose with an orchestra, so I think there was an intention to stay away from the worst of that but at the same time allow it to really flourish when it felt that it was right," Gabriel said in a 2011 interview with the Quietus. "We really felt as if we’d come up with something that we hadn’t heard before."