Peter Gabriel - Scratch My Back
Quitting Genesis at the height of their powers, almost going bankrupt after setting up the Womad festival in 1982 and producing music for a show at the ill-fated Millenium Dome. These are not the acts of a man who is comfortable playing the standard rock star game but then Peter Gabriel has never been one to play it safe or settle for the middle ground.
So, eight years after the release of his last album, Up, he returns not with new material but with Scratch My Back, an album of carefully selected cover versions, part of a project that will see the artists covered here repaying the compliment by producing their own takes on Gabriel’s back catalogue over the course of the year.
A sparsely orchestrated and fractured take on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ doesn’t entirely convince but sets the tone nicely for what develops. A stunning ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ follows and replaces Paul Simon’s upbeat African rhythms with mournful piano and minimal violin to produce a funereally paced, yet strangely uplifting, dissection of modern life. Covering Elbow’s ‘Mirrorball’ is a task that would defeat most, yet Gabriel does it with aplomb with a brilliant arrangement and the infusion of his own distinctive voice - which just gets better and better with age. More evidence of this can be heard in ‘Flume' where Gabriel takes Bon Iver’s lyrics, moulding them into a near-perfect love song that will touch even the stoniest heart.
Centrepiece of the album is a glorious torch song rendition of The Arcade Fire’s ‘My Body Is A Cage’ that would be worthy of Kurt Weill. Excellent versions of the work of The Magnetic Fields, Randy Newman and Regina Spektor follow but sadly the album tails off with slightly lacklustre run throughs of Neil Young’s ‘Philadelphia’ and Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ that fail to add anything of value to the originals.
Despite the slightly disappointing finale, Scratch My Back is an always fascinating and sometimes brilliant album that remind us that cover versions can still change one’s perception of how a song should sound. Surely that is reason enough to investigate this wonderful work from one of the true masters of the art.