Peter Gabriel: The Darwin of Pop

Music Features Peter Gabriel
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“‘Making the world cry’ has been my slogan for a very long time.”

That’s what Peter Gabriel, art-rock’s resident grey-haired wizard-genius, told me upon hearing that I was moved to tears by the revamped orchestral version of his 1982 classic “San Jacinto.” In its original Security form, the minimal, affecting track—which patiently depicts a young Native American’s dangerous symbolic/physical mountaintop ascent to manhood—is as tense and dramatic as anything Gabriel ever recorded: a spacious, holy atmosphere of Fairlight synth pads and life-sized reverbed snare hits, climaxing in an skyward head-rush of vocal melody, yet somehow guarding its euphoric revelations close to the chest. On New Blood, Gabriel’s new collection of orchestral re-workings, “San Jacinto” is robust and dense, colored with fluttering flutes and circling pizzicato strings. “I hold the light!” Gabriel erupts amid the hypnotic symphonic flood. If the Security version was a breathtaking cliffhanger, this is the emotional catapult pay-off—we’re dangled from the precipice of an epiphany, released with jaws dropped into the artful unknown.

It’s fair to say that Gabriel, a 61-year-old father of four, knows a thing or two about bringing his listeners closer to their Kleenexes. An epic journey like “San Jacinto” will do that to you. Even at his quietest, his most haunting, Gabriel is a maximalist—an emotional maximalist. But he’s just as good at making us dance (the blue-eyed soul-strut of “Sledgehammer”) as he is pulverizing us with weighty majesty (the percussive assault of “The Rhythm of the Heat,” the joyous carpe diem pop miracle that is “Solsbury Hill”). Whatever this guy does, he does it 100 percent. He doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “half-assed.”

Which ultimately explains why this visionary musician-humanitarian-entrepreneur only bears a total nine legitimate studio albums to his name (with only seven of newly written material), despite a solo career dating back to the late ’70s. Another explanation is that he gets bored easily. In the late 2000s, Gabriel emerged with a unique concept, re-interpreting some of his favorite tracks—and trendy new stuff—on his 2010 project Scratch My Back (a conceptual and stylistic pre-cursor to New Blood), utilizing the skills of arranger John Metcalfe and The London Scratch Orchestra. There were strict rules: No drums. No guitars. The artists he covered (including David Bowie, Radiohead, Bon Iver and Paul Simon) would, in return, reciprocate by recording their interpretation of a Gabriel track. Ultimately, the I’ll Scratch Yours project fell through (only a handful of artists rose to the challenge, and those tracks were released as digital singles), but Scratch My Back, a sonically challenging, critically polarizing disc, ended up being more interesting than the few I’ll Scratch Yours tracks that surfaced anyway. Gabriel made every single one of those songs his own unique vision, from the stirring emotional wallop of Bowie’s supercharged “Heroes” to his meditative, sparse piano version of Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble.”

Evolution is Peter Gabriel’s calling card. As a founder and musical leader of Genesis, one of the most influential progressive rock bands in music history, he transformed himself from a shy, sheltered young man into a psychedelic behemoth, dressing up in ridiculous costumes on-stage and co-writing some of the most enduring progressive rock albums of all time. But after the band’s 1975 prog-swan-song, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel jumped ship, feeling boxed in by his media persona and the confines of a grueling tour schedule that allowed no freedom for other projects. “I was feeling part of the scenery / I walked right out of the machinery,” he gleefully sings on “Solsbury Hill,” the first track on his 1977 self-titled solo debut—and that lyric basically describes his artistic vision. He’s always been in a constant state of evolution—experimenting with cutting edge technology (like the Fairlight synth on Security), delving into human rights issues with Amnesty International, organizing a long-running music and arts festival called WOMAD. As a stage performer, he’s known for his visual spectacles (like walking upside down on a giant platform or riding a bicycle), and when it comes to his live music, he’s always keen to try out a new trick—adding the now-essential live intro and outro to his worldly staple “In Your Eyes,” radically re-arranging his dark classic “Games Without Frontiers” as a video-game synth jam on-stage. For the New Blood tour, Gabriel stretches himself way past his comfort zone. Typically a physical performer, prone to awkward dancing, the singer is now stoic, standing artistically naked in front of a gargantuan orchestra—no bass or drums there for rhythmic comfort.

“I think it was bloody scary being in front of this large group of players and not having this rhythm section to groove along with or hide behind,” he says. “And it’s very exposed, but it’s also quite thrilling, and I really got to love it.”

The risk, the struggle, the reward: It’s what makes Gabriel tick.

“I think if a song has life, it should be allowed to evolve,” he says from his home in Wiltshire, England, where he’s been knee-deep in promotion for New Blood and his upcoming 3-D concert film, New Blood: Live in London. He speaks in a deep, wise rumble: the kind of voice that’s seen its share of grueling tours. “I think music has a natural tendency—or any sort of creative thing—to evolve, and although I guess in the digital world, you can just press play and things will sound exactly the same, I don’t think that’s very interesting to people. I think it’s more interesting when it does change and can go wrong.”

On New Blood, very little goes wrong. Where Scratch My Back often distanced itself from the listener, retreating into cavernous expanses of quiet or downplaying the singer’s melodic prowess, New Blood is thrillingly out in the open, gushing from top-to-bottom with highlights, even when Gabriel does venture into risky waters. On “Don’t Give Up,” originally a gospel-tinged duet with Kate Bush from his 1986 commercial breakthrough, So, Gabriel utilizes the warbled, foreign croon of vocalist-songwriter Ane Brun (one of his live backing vocalists on the New Blood tour). Her call-and-response with Gabriel is an exotic twist of texture, contrasting heavily with Bush’s original soothing presence. Fans may be irritated, but that’s part of the risk Gabriel mentions.

The New Blood tracklist is full of deep album cuts and forgotten treasures, typically avoiding his biggest hits and, instead, focusing on tracks that worked best with his and Metcalfe’s orchestral vision.

“Well, I didn’t want to do a sort of ‘hits record,’ so we purposely left off ‘Sledgehammer,’ ‘Big Time,’ ‘Games Without Frontiers,’ but I did want to find the songs in my catalog that might have texture and emotional storytelling development elements that would translate well. So I was looking for things that had that sort of dynamic structure and didn’t necessarily fall into a verse-chorus-verse-chorus [format], so that was part of it. And I’m old-fashioned enough to still like a whole sequence of songs, so we tried to get songs that would fit together and function as a journey from A to B.”

And though Gabriel clearly embarked on this project for artistic reasons more than commercial ones, he still considered the voice of his fans—albeit in his trademark off-kilter fashion. “In fact, the late inclusion for ‘Solsbury Hill’ was because we had a lot of requests for it, and I thought, ‘I’ll put it in as a bonus track, but I think the album runs nicely without it.’ So I asked then Dickie [Chappell], my engineer, if he would go up and sit on Solsbury Hill like I used to before I wrote it, and whatever sounds he recorded would be the sort of filler, if you like—the ambience between the main album and the bonus track.”

The New Blood “journey from A to B” is filled with unexpected detours that bring the songs new life. Many tracks here are more powerful than their original counterparts, the textures of the orchestra bringing the lyrics and ideas to new, exciting places. Gabriel agrees, particularly with “The Rhythm of the Heat,” which has a wild percussive coda that makes the Security version sound comparatively meager.

“That was my idea. I wasn’t sure how we were going to be able to do that—the drum thing. John suggested some percussion things, but I just had a flash: Maybe what we should do is take these rhythmic parts, these rhythmic sequences that make up a whole, and translate them onto strings and other orchestral instruments. I called him up pretty excited, and he turned it around pretty fast. I still think it’s probably my favorite moment on the record.”

Gabriel’s still in “traveling salesman” mode for New Blood and its accompanying DVD, but he’s already tentatively planning his next solo move—an album of newly written material that’s been an off-on project now in the works since 2002’s Up. To fans, the project has grown to mythical status, bearing the still-unofficial name I/O.

“This is perhaps silly of me to come up with a title before I’ve got a real album,” he says, “but there’s a lot of stuff in the can, and in January, I’ll start looking at it all again. And it’s not finished—that’s the thing. It’s a lot of ideas, some of which I’m sure I’ll still love and some of which I’ll think are crap. However, I’m also attracted to try a different type of music that I’ve been exploring with the orchestra, so I may even do a bit of both and see what’s most promising. It’s still that sort of thing that I’m thinking about and using very different instrumentation that I have been with the orchestra.

“I just think it’s good to try different things,” he continues, “because you open some daylight into the dark corners that way that wouldn’t normally be exposed if you didn’t consciously steer it that way. I was thinking about electronic stuff, having done orchestral things with the two records. I think that would be a nice contrast, and given that these have been quite serious and down records, make these quite childlike and ‘up.’ It’s a fun idea; whether I’ll get something I still like musically, I don’t know. We’ll find out.”

Peter Gabriel—constantly in motion, constantly in a state of reinvention. We’re all just spectators, clinging to our handkerchiefs and headphones.

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