Covers Album “Scratch My Back” Proves Peter Gabriel Still Willing to Take Chances

February 27, 2010 · Print This Article

Since the days when the worldbeat-driven art pop of So rocketed him to unlikely superstardom, Peter Gabriel has busied himself finding virtually every way to show that his desire to create art trumps his desire to create commerce.

His output has not dwindled as dramatically as some would like to say – he has produced film scores, collaborations, and an excellent world music label since the release of 1992’s Us – but there’s no doubt the work he has chosen to release as his “studio” output strongly favors the experimental, introspective, and brooding aspects of his personality.  It is fortunate that Gabriel can still pull off just about anything he tries along these lines – 2002’s Up is an underrated late-era masterpiece, filled with meandering moodscapes that feel as worked-over as the pages of a Joyce novel – but he has clearly left any semblance of audience-pleasing far behind.  Speaking from a mere business standpoint, the result can only be described as a very drawn-out form of commercial suicide.  From an artistic standpoint, it makes Gabriel perhaps one of the most fearless and subversive artists of his stature to be found anywhere.

Opinions of the man are not going to change based on his latest release, the covers collection Scratch My Back.  Firstly, it’s a covers record, which immediately conjures thoughts of creative bankruptcy.  Secondly, Gabriel has chosen to cover some of the most adored artists in the annals of music snobbery.  The track selection reads like the deserted island playlist of an alternative rock writer’s dreams:  Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind”, Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage”, etc.

One imagines hardcore fans of these songs view them to be utterly perfect and untouchable, such that it would be ludicrous anyone – let alone Peter Gabriel – would try and re-interpret them.  Of course, that’s exactly why the tracks were picked.  Mr. Gabriel wants to create some waves and, perhaps, tip over some sacred cows, because he is no has-been, and this is no ordinary covers record. Love that hypnotic polyrhythmic drive – and those crazy Adrian Belew siren calls – on “Listening Wind”?   Gabriel could give a shit.  How ‘bout those hilarious, sardonic vocals on The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love”?  Kiss ‘em goodbye. Gabriel has re-imagined all these tunes as austere, Britten-esque dirges of existential angst.  There are no guitars, no drums – only Gabriel’s weathered-but-still-passionate vox, and an orchestra summoned out of the same quasi-apocalyptic wasteland that spawned Kronos Quartet.

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The effect is quite similar to the melancholy spareness of “Father, Son”, a piano-based track Gabriel released some years ago about the opening up of his relationship with his Dad.  Along with producer Bob Ezrin and orchestral arranger John Metcalfe, Gabriel has expanded on that approach for Scratch My Back, emerging with a record that likewise feels very personal, subjective, and cerebral.

It’s no surprise the tracks that succeed most are the ones that best suit the approach.  Bon Iver’s acoustic ode to femininity and motherhood, “Flume”, achieves a nice new grandeur in Gabriel’s hands – it has just the kind of esoteric-but-resonant feel Gabriel has been perfecting his entire career – while “My Body is a Cage” goes off on a huge, self-indulgent orchestral tantrum mid-track before bringing things back around with a nicely understated concluding verse.

Elbow’s “Mirrorball” – already a great love song – seems even more romantic re-cast with Gabriel’s reflective wisdom and circular swirl of shimmering violins, while the version here of Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart” correctly chooses to emphasize Reed’s surprisingly sincere and moving lyric: “You know me, I like to dream a lot/ Of what there is and what there’s not/ But mainly, I dream of you a lot.”  Did those words really come out of Reed’s jaded cranium?  Because Gabriel believes it, so do we.

Regina Spektor’s “Apres Moi” slyly turns Louis XV’s statement of aristocratic arrogance – “after me comes the flood” – into a mantra of unity and self-sacrifice.  Already very baroque in its original form, Gabriel’s version turns the piece into a barnstorming epic rivaling Mussorgsky for orchestral melodrama.

Other times, irony is applied in ways both successful and unsuccessful.  The album’s first track – a version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” – does a smashing job establishing the record’s subversive tone.  The anthemic trappings of the original do betray some wishful melancholia in the lyrics, and Gabriel seizes onto that latent sadness with a vocal line so withdrawn, vulnerable and defeated it doesn’t even have enough energy to raise its own surrender flag.  Ditto to Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble”, the rather jaunty original here replaced with the desolate warblings of an idealist who has finally realized, with utter despair, that the world truly is doomed.

Meanwhile, the straight-faced, stiff reading of “The Book of Love” has a decent arrangement, but the lyric sorely requires the humor Stephen Meritt’s droll reading brought to the original, which Gabriel is unfortunately incapable of providing.  Randy Newman’s wrist-slitting “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” was already orchestral in its original form; in an amusing twist, Gabriel uses only piano on his version, making it the lone song on the record without strings.  Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” is a song that conjures up a feeling of loss and sorrow so powerful on its own that Gabriel can’t really top it, even with a whole army of funereal bow abuse backing him.

Then there’s the aforementioned “Street Spirit”, which closes out the record.  Utilizing a pallid, ascending piano line occasionally accentuated by extremely delicate violin intrusions, the track should, in theory, appeal to card-carrying mimimalists Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, who applied an approach similar to this on their anti-war song “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)”. However, some of Gabriel’s vocal choices here are so bizarre that the track gets unintentionally comical – almost Shatnerian – at times.

Scratch My Back is an experiment and borderline provocation, so I suppose it’s almost a foregone conclusion that it is not an entirely successful work; given the diverse tonal make-up of the tunes involved, it might have been a mistake for Gabriel to apply the same musical approach to everything on the record.  As pure experimentation, though, it is very bold, daring, and fascinating.  It will make purists and ironic tastemakers of all stripes scream bloody murder, which is precisely the point, and I have to say it makes me kinda giddy to see that Mr. Gabriel remains one of the subtlest ass-burners in the business.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the experiment, though, is what hasn’t happened yet; Scratch My Back is part of what is being called a “song swap”, wherein everyone whom Gabriel has covered on this record has agreed, in turn, to cover a song from his catalog.  Who doesn’t want to hear David Byrne – or, perhaps, even a re-united Talking Heads – tackle “The Family and the Fishing Net”, or something similarly funky and badass?  -Luke Pimentel, Contributing Editor

“Scratch My Back” was released in the UK on February 15th, and will be released in the US on March 2nd.  It is currently streaming in full over at The Guardian UK.

For more information on Peter Gabriel, please visit www.petergabriel.com.

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