In the same way that Scratch My Back reinterpreted rock and pop with only an orchestra and Peter Gabriel’s plaintive vocals, Gabriel–along with arranger John Metcalfe–have applied the same stylings to the artist’s own material. The results are sometimes startling, often ordinary, but always beautiful–particularly with good headphones or speakers, where the engineering artistry of Real World Studios is most apparent.
Some of the arrangements, like “The Rhythm of the Heat” and “Red Rain”, aren’t all that different from the original versions (on Security and So). On some, orchestral cacophony starts pulling us away from old-rocker-with-an-orchestra and starts hinting at new territory, like on “Downside Up” and “In Your Eyes”.
Bright spots include “Downside Up”, from the Ovo soundtrack, which benefits from both the bright orchestration and the more varied tempos. “Intruder” works remarkably well with strings providing the rhythmic, nearly cinematic driving rhythms the song requires. And “San Jacinto”, possibly my favorite track on the album, avoids the obvious choice modeling itself after the synthesized sting opening of the original, instead opting for subtle piano, pizzicato cellos, and chiming percussion. This version isn’t as powerful as the 1982 original–let alone the thunderous version Gabriel’s band performed on their landmark mid-eighties So tour. Gabriel’s voice, always a bright light in his recordings, has improved enough in the intervening years to make up for that.
I’ve been through the album twice. It’s a beautiful disc–recorded by Real World Studios, of course it is–but it’s lacking in something. Some of the newer material could have benefited from some more space before re-recording the vocals (“Darkness”–and also “Blood of Eden” and “Signal to Noise”, bonus tracks both–are beautiful but just aren’t that different from the studio versions.)
Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios is one of the best recording studios in the world, and their engineers are masters at reproducing sonic detail. I’ve been listening to this disc since it arrived this morning, and intend to continue to do so. I’m just now starting to listen to the “instrumental” versions of the tracks on the special-edition disc, and I’m surprised to find myself enjoying them. They feel quite different from the vocal versions, and are well-worth listening to.
Yeah, it’s audio porn of a sort, just like “Scratch my Back” before it. But I’m happy with records that sound this good, this clear, this beautiful.