Peter Gabriel – of Genesis and solo fame – steps out of classic rock on his latest disc, Scratch My Back, a collection of twelve covers of artists as varied as Lou Reed to Radiohead to David Bowie. The idea behind this project is that each artist will cover one of Gabriel’s songs in return, to be released on an album entitled I’ll Scratch Yours.
I’ve never been a huge Genesis or Peter Gabriel solo fan, to be honest. “Solsbury Hill” is a classic, of course, but Gabriel hasn’t released an album since 2002. However, this modest array of tunes is a nice addition to his legacy, and a pretty innovative project. Each track is fairly stripped down, using only orchestral instruments and Gabriel’s warm, familiar vocals rather than full rock arrangements. As a result, these are not by-the-book covers, but rather, Gabriel’s own interpretations, full of feeling and mood, transported to a different place than they were originally recorded.
I initially snapped up this disc after hearing his take on Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage,” the closer to their Neon Bible album. It’s already an excellent song, all tense buildup and swelling instrumentation. Gabriel’s take is moody and more muted his vocals raw and bare as the song rises from a spare piano accoutrement to a full-out sweep of violins. This is one of those rare instances where I love this version as much, if not more, than the original.
Also familiar offerings are Gabriel’s take on Bon Iver’s “Flume,” David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and “The Book Of Love” by The Magnetic Fields, featured prominently on the Scrubs series finale. Gabriel infuses Bon Iver’s wintry, cryptic ode with a sense of intimacy, the rich instrumentation pairing well with his assured vocals. Meanwhile, opener “Heroes” puts a new spin on Bowie’s energetic, confident classic, turning it into a searching plea for love that overcomes everything. Lead single “The Book Of Love” (backed by Magnetic Fields’ frontman Stephen Merit’s version of Gabriel’s “Not One of Us”) also seems tailor-made for Gabriel, so much so that I can imagine it being written by him originally. It’s truly lovely.
Throughout, this album is relaxed and quiet, perfect for blissing out to. There are points where such similarity of tone gets a bit exhausting, though, and I find that Scratch My Back is just as enjoyable when taken as individual tracks rather than as a cohesive statement album. I can play “My Body Is A Cage” on repeat, but it takes real balls to take on Radiohead and even in spite of that, Gabriel’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is a little lagging. Nonetheless, this disc is a nice interplay between some of the classic rock greats (Neil Young, Talking Heads, and Bowie) and indie standards (Regina Spektor, Elbow).
Scratch My Back may not immediately strike your attention as a must-have, but it’s worth a listen to see what Peter Gabriel can do. Many of the tracks here will blow you away.
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