Release Date: Mar 2, 2010
Record label: EMI
Genre(s): Rock, Pop
The covers album has a bad reputation: it is seen as something that gets released in lieu of something else, evidence that a songwriter's creative juices have dried up. In the case of Peter Gabriel, that's a state of affairs compounded by the fact that he's released only two full-length studio albums in the last 20 years. But Scratch My Back suggests that may have more to do with perfectionism than lack of inspiration.
With half the bands in Brooklyn citing him as? an influence, ?Peter Gabriel is now cooler than ?he’s been in years. On Scratch My Back, this set of 12? covers, he repays the indie scene by including a few tunes by comparative youngsters like Arcade Fire and? Bon Iver, each one transformed into an arty dirge using only his voice ?and an understated orchestra. No individual rendition improves ?notably on its source material, ?but taken together they form a nicely melancholy suite.
Those awaiting a proper follow-up to Peter Gabriel’s last studio album Up (2002) will have to hold out a bit longer. Instead, Gabriel’s new full-length release is Scratch My Back, the first part of a two-album project where the former Genesis frontman and a select group of artists form a mutual appreciation society by covering each other’s songs. Scratch My Back—the half of the project that features Gabriel tackling tracks by friends, admirers, and personal favorites—is a 12-song set that favors like-minded inhabiters of the artier end of rock music, from David Bowie to Talking Heads to Radiohead.
No one can accuse Peter Gabriel of being short of a concept or three. The art rocker's latest wheeze is an album of cover versions, to be followed by an album of their composers covering his work (hence the title). The thought of that second album doubtless influenced the final cut from the 100 songs Gabriel shortlisted; among those interpreting his work will be Neil Young, Regina Spektor, David Bowie and Elbow.
From the progressive adventures of Genesis to the stylistic flux of his subsequent solo career, Peter Gabriel has always made for an strange kind of pop icon. He's never been a rock 'n' roll animal. He's never really fitted in alongside the irksome likes of Sting and Bono, with whom he shares a philanthropic impulse. He's not a million miles from Brian Eno but you couldn't really imagine the ambient mastermind pumping his pelvis before an arena crowd to a song called 'Sledgehammer'.
Covers collections usually indicate something fishy on the part of an artist: boredom with their own material, creative bankruptcy, laziness. And while Scratch My Back‘s assemblage doesn’t necessarily suggest desperation or a total dearth of ideas, Peter Gabriel’s first album in eight years does carry the definite stink of pandering opportunism. That’s not to say that Gabriel isn’t a big fan of all the songs here, which taken together, might form a respectable mixtape.
To accurately digest this album, it’s going to take double the work. Unlike most other albums, you have to listen to the original and the reworked piece to understand what was there to draw from and the intricacies of what Gabriel's attempting to do. You can't judge this album on its own; only as a reimaging of what was crafted beforehand. Because on its own, Gabriel's collection of songs would be kind of homogeneous.
What's he doing here? That was the first question that came to mind when a cover of Vampire Weekend's "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" showed up on blogs in 2008, featuring Peter Gabriel's familiar voice singing lead over Hot Chip's backing: "Feels so unnatural/ Peter Gabriel too," goes the oft-quoted refrain, to which Gabriel added, "And it feels so unnatural/ To sing your own name. " It was surprising because Gabriel seemed like the kind of artist who would remain blissfully ignorant of the changes that have befallen the music business in the years since he released his last album, Up, in 2002. Somewhere between the time of the smash So in 1986 and the launch of the Human Rights Now! tour in 1988, Gabriel seemed to transcend the pop machine.
Rather than offering the listener an album of new material, Peter Gabriel has elected to cover a selection of artists, varying from the old and hip (Lou Reed, Paul Simon) to the new and hip (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver). The artists covered here are supposedly returning the favor and covering Gabriel tracks on the appropriately titled, forthcoming, I'll Scratch Yours. (True story.) The album opens with David Bowie's “Heroes,” and it sets the funereal tone to follow.
A stunningly realised pop covers collection from the musical polymath. Will Dean 2010 "It feels so unnatural / to sing your own name," sang Peter Gabriel last year, lending his voice to Hot Chip's cover of Vampire Weekend's Gabriel name-checking Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. The point seems to have extended to singing his own songs, as he starts the new decade with a collection of beautifully recorded covers that renege on guitars and drums in favour of an orchestra arranged by The Durutti Column's John Metcalfe.