Peter Gabriel: Scratch My Back

RIYL: Brian Eno, David Byrne, Harold Budd

On paper, covers projects don’t get much more intriguingly wacky than this: Scratch My Back finds the ever-restless Peter Gabriel covering 12 songs by other artists, to be followed with I’ll Scratch Yours, in which those same artists cover Gabriel’s catalog. Oh, and since it’s never a Peter Gabriel album without some kind of twist, he decided to record his end of the bargain with an orchestra. And did we mention the artists he covered? David Bowie, Paul Simon, Bon Iver, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, Randy Newman, Neil Young, and Radiohead are only some of the famous (and mostly très hip) names who get scratched here – if ever there was an album that had a snowball’s chance of uniting the Pitchfork and Goldmine crowds, this is it.

On paper, anyway. In reality, Scratch My Back never comes anywhere near the zany generational/stylistic mash-up its concept suggests; in fact, it might end up being one of the more wildly divisive recordings of Gabriel’s long, proudly obstinate career.

How the album hits you will have a lot to do with what you expect. Given his track record, you might think Gabriel would use the orchestral setting to explore the expanded dynamic possibilities of the music by tinkering with polyrhythms and layers – just imagine what a healthy-sized string section could do with Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” – but that isn’t the case. Really, aside from a few outbursts, this is a pretty sedate album; Gabriel’s overall approach is pretty well summed up with his morose, sleepy take on “Bubble,” which at least shows up early enough in the track listing to give you a hint of what’s to come.

So it isn’t everything it could have been, and may strike some listeners as something of a disappointment at first, but don’t be quick to dismiss Scratch My Back: Like most Gabriel records – especially his recent efforts – it’s a grower. Most covers albums are an opportunity for the artist to let loose and have a little fun with songs they love, and to try and add their own voice to someone else’s refrain. But not Gabriel – even at his commercial peak, he was an insular artist, and here, he mostly sounds like he’s running through some old favorites for his own benefit. The result is an album that opens slowly: With the exception of the slow-building “My Body Is a Cage” and his take on Regina Spektor’s “Après moi,” which comes barreling out of the gates, much of Scratch initially comes across as a bit of a beautiful snooze. Be patient, though, and Gabriel rewards you with a work of tender intimacy – and he makes Lou Reed and Neil Young sound positively tuneful in the bargain: His covers of “The Power of the Heart” and “Philadelphia” are two of the album’s highlights. In today’s heavily compressed sonic landscape, Scratch My Back may register as little more than an echo at first, but it’s rare we get to hear music with this kind of simple focus, or stark beauty. If it’s still hard not to wish Gabriel had wandered a little further afield with his interpretations, well, we still have I’ll Scratch Yours to hope for. (Real World 2010)

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