Peter Gabriel tends to make appearances on record, once in a while... when he's ready... sometimes. And that, my friends, is why folks are gearing up for his next studio album with the anticipatory exalt of it being his first real studio record of his in 8 years. The first in a while with vocal performances I should add. But guess what? It's a covers album. Does that burst your bubble? Well it shouldn't. Still, I have to wonder: Is songwriting his part-time job? Apparently. But don't let that fool you because he always provides something essential and innovative each time out, no matter who's doing the writing. Sure he pens as many completed works in a year as Elvis Costello does in an afternoon between tea and lunch, but the guy's a perfectionist. It's been an intermittent solo gig for Gabriel since the 80s ended, as his workload has dwindled to much lighter than what it was during and after his time in Genesis, the band he helped found before leaving in 1974. He started his solo career officially in 1977 with an album slanted to the tastes of arena rock, 70s "prog" and other side trips unthinkable for the modern Peter Gabriel to ever touch (Heavy metal? Cocktail jazz? Barbershop? It's all there on Peter Gabriel- the one with the rainy car window cover). The man behind that first step, Canadian born and based Bob Ezrin, has been a reputed rock producer for years, meanwhile some critics and fans still accuse him of mishandling Gabriel's debut way back when (Gabriel himself grumbled about the treatment of some tunes, notably the apocalyptic opus "Here Comes the Flood"). Nonetheless, Ezrin has been brought back to produce this new release.
Gabriel, in those formative years all by his lonesome, put out a comparatively startling 4 albums in his first 5 years then went four years before the multi-platinum pop breakthrough of 1986's So, although that's if you don't count the soundtrack to Alan Parker's 1984 film Birdy where he created instrumental re-imaginings of some tracks he'd previously done. Another soundtrack arrived in 1989 with Passion, the soundtrack to Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ. But aside from that rather beautiful instrumental work, Gabriel didn't have a new tune with a vocal between 1986 and 1992 other than a collaboration with famed Senegalese singer Yousso N'Dour on his own 1989 cut "Shaking the Tree." Then came 1992's Us and Gabriel proved the wait was worth it, although the album didn't transcend the way So did by cutting across all commercial barriers and catching the fancy of critics at the same time. The rest of the 90s saw Gabriel become immersed in the workings of his record label, Real World, which is dedicated to introducing peoples' ears to world music of every variety. He stayed close to his affinity for soundtracks, releasing a document of the live concert for London's Millenium Dome Show in 2000, a record titled OVO. A year later came Long Walk Home: Music from the Rabbit Proof Fence, his third film soundtrack. His true followup to Us was still in the works even though most of it had been completed between 1995 and 1998. Therefore, Gabriel justly earned the reputation of being a slow worker, a meticulous studio dweller who tinkered with albums for years the way some scientists slave to come up with a groundbreaking thesis.
Finally in 2002 came Up- another in a long line of briefly titled records, a flippant and witty reaction to when Geffen Records in the early 80s requested he stop self-titling each of his albums- and with the same font for his name, as if to make each cover one in a continuous series of magazine issues. Supposedly, they requested this in order to avoid confusing the public, therefore Peter has released albums with titles like So, Us, as well as the compilation Hit. Up managed to confuse anyway since it was released the same year as Shania Twain's Up (speaking of artists who wait eons to release their albums!). This was followed by more spellbinding touring behind enchantingly elaborate visual fancies, a trademark of Peter's concert legacy that can have you either scratching your head or with your jaw hanging open in amazement (if you love Cirque De Soleil, then Peter's your kind of musical entertainer). But then came another long silence. Finally Peter has returned but with a new album that's a bold step even for him. Rather than new compositions, Scratch My Back is a collection of 12 covers, compositions stretching back in age as much as 30 years with a few recent ones sprinkled in. The selection of covers cuts a wide swath of tastes and genres by picking from groups with underground/indie cred as well as from fairly well known artists that have been doing their thing even longer than Peter, though he has them beat for his youth when starting out, as Genesis cut their first singles when Gabriel was a 17-year old still in school.
And the caveat is that a companion record called I'll Scratch Yours will feature the artists Gabriel covers doing renditions of of his songs. It's a unique concept to see a "various artists" disc that will no doubt be more relevant and interesting via this tie-in. If you think all this was as out of the ordinary as it gets, well wrap your mind around the radical idea of Gabriel doing these covers with full orchestral backing. Remarkably organic for a Peter Gabriel album, isn't it? The usual cadre of African drummers, exotic percussion, innovative synthesizers, production tricks and longtime bassist Tony Levin's unique drumstick bass, is absent from Scratch My Back. Gabriel uses a hushed vocal a majority of the time on the opener, a cover of David Bowie's "Heroes," slowed to a crawl with a church organ as the main chordal structure. It turns what was a theatrical, vivid, dramatic portrayal of a lover's tryst by the Berlin Wall into more of an elegy, a sort of elegiac state of pondering like slowing down the moment for reflection. This isn't the greatest, most mesmerizing adaptation one will hear of "Heroes," but to find Gabriel re-inventing it the way he did his own "Here Comes the Flood" in 1990- which went from overproduced apex of hard rock to forlorn piano ballad in a sort of anti-climactic way- is a curious thing to behold. Taking Bowie's hyperkinetic melancholy and replacing it with the sort of hush that Arcade Fire excels in is a risky move that doesn't fully pay off.
Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble," which opened his legendary Graceland album, has much the same transformation engineered on it, turning into some sort of picturesque Randy Newman piece, instead of the bubbling African-Zydeco that Simon first shaped it as. Gabriel's soothed, hoarse voice is one that I often don't find at its best when singing soft compositions or ballads, but he really hasn't used it for shouting and barking in a long time. And though that's his prerogative, I do miss the bite behind tunes like "Modern Love," "And Through the Wire" and "Red Rain." So I suppose his careful, silent manipulating of this one is a bit more boring than bristling, which sags the album a bit. But luckily, more interesting is the third selection, Elbow's "Mirrorball." Here Gabriel has the song paced by the meditative loop of an organ as the string parts build over it with warmth and precision. It's not too far off from the music box chiming of Elbow's original, a sure harkening back to Gabriel's days in Genesis itself. Elbow is the British "alternative" rock group forgotten in the mix thanks to crossover successes like Coldplay, Radiohead and Keane. But in recent years, their struggle to be acknowledged even in their homeland was eventually overcome and they've become recognized as contenders to Radiohead's supremacy and Gabriel's cover is another sign of gratitude and interest from a long-standing, respected artist. Where the two previous cuts were uncertain adaptions of pieces that didn't seem to carry the right aura for Gabriel, "Mirrorball" is right up his alley.
Ethereal chamber music is struck upon with "Flume," a track first done by critical darlings Bon Iver. The ultra sensitive and forest-friendly folk of Iver's Justin Vernon doesn't necessarily get ingested by me like a fine wine, the way it does for others, but Gabriel hits a more earthy quality with his rendition and I appreciate it in the end. We finally get Peter shooting into his upper register vocally too. Piano comes back as the basis for chords on "Flume" and the horn parts can easily remind anyone of the humanist beauty that symphonic winds can express. "Listening Wind," a cut off the Talking Heads monumental 1980 record Remain in Light, never fully takes off the ground though. This cover carries plenty of nervous energy and mystery, though not nearly the kind that the Heads did with their eerie reggae sort of post-punk, enlivened by Brian Eno's method of creating melody around electronics. The original "Listening Wind" had an atmosphere nearly replicated by several tracks off of the next Gabriel album to come after Remain in Light, 1982's Security. The jungle soundscapes of "The Rhythm of the Heat" and "Lay Your Hands on Me" paralleled a lot of what David Byrne was exploring with world music sounds on his own, with Eno and with his band. So the two seem like kindred spirits on opposite sides of the Atlantic and slightly different wavelengths (i.e. Byrne is much weirder). How Byrne approaches his Gabriel cover of choice will be highly anticipated by me- I say Byrne because the rest of the Heads are estranged from him therefore no full band participation is expected.
Fear not though, because Peter does hit shining moments at times on this album, namely with a cover of "The Power of the Heart," a yet to be formally released Lou Reed composition that he has performed live several times. It's one of Reed's more pure and devoted love songs, no doubt inspired by the experimental conceptual artist-cum-musician Laurie Anderson, his wife of a couple years now. Layering piano and horns onto what's another good old primitive but deep effort from Reed brings out some more tenderness and melody where there maybe wasn't before. Gabriel meets the criteria for giving it his own spin and earns my kudos for that- though not too much charity considering the slight failure of two other tracks to this point. This highlight of the LP makes for good and highly deserved exposure for one of Lou's best ballads in years, a sensational thing to see from an old wrinkly rocker aging gracefully with maturity who's still alive despite a 1970s rife with drug-induced decadence and debaucher- a legacy that Gabriel's never had to shake off, thank goodness. Staying current, PG does Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" from their 2007 opus, Neon Bible. If only prog rock in Genesis's era had been less self-absorbed and less self-centredly narcissistic, then it would have resembled Arcade Fire. And that would've been a monumental good thing, as Devo once proclaimed. The chilling final cut on their most recent studio album is taken on by Gabriel in a subdued manner.
Peter prefers to keep it more bottled up, less ferociously tense than Win Butler, he being one never too shy to go for a little melodrama if you didn't already know. That approach works in that it makes "My Body is a Cage" into a more seductive and holy piece, rather than the intermittently angry and paranoid version Arcade Fire produced. With "The Book of Love," the first single chosen from the album, Gabriel gets a little more energetic, so as not to lull listeners into a false sense of sleep or some other coma-like state where classical overtones can fatigue more than perk up the mind. The Magnetic Fields' original is not dense either, but prefers to be a sort of bluegrass-meets-the-coffeehouse creation that's about as unique as you'll find in the music scene today, and that's because it dates back to 1999. But then again, there was nothing like this in 1999 either, except for maybe that lovable Jonathan Richman, a long practicer of capturing geeky angst and lovelorn feelings into parlour hall tunes since he arrived in the early 70s. Magnetic Fields frontman Stephen Merritt does indeed remind one of Richman, the marked difference being in mood as Merritt's a real downer in his blue state of mind and is an openly gay singer-songwriter, not a hilarious Bostonian who's perpetually, but winningly, adolescent at heart like Richman. By choosing to cover "The Book of Love," Gabriel chooses wisely and I find this recording to be a deserved lead single. And here I was thinking it was going to be a cover of that doo-wop classic by the Monotones. Now THAT would have been neat to see Peter manage.
My earlier reference to Gabriel making a Randy Newman pastiche out of "The Boy in the Bubble" comes back into relevancy thanks to Gabriel's own try at "I Think it's Going to Rain Today." Newman, himself a very sparse producer of full-out studio albums ever since his Hollywood priorities took precedence in the 80s, often can write bitterly caustic and genuinely funny character studies, full of piss and vinegar but with a deep understanding of humankind and, as this song describes, the odd showing of "human kindness." Once in a while, amidst the commentary and Allan Sherman levels of satire, Newman can pull out a serious piano ballad like "I Think it's Going to Rain Today." The more heavy stuff is what's distinguished Newman as a highly sought after film composer in fact (Toy Storyand The Natural being just the most well known of his towering catalogue of scores). Mind you, this particular number dates back very far in his pop songwriting career, appearing on his self-titled debut in 1968 and being covered to death afterward. The fact he was in his early 20s when he wrote it shows he never outgrew or lost his knack for lovely torch songs. Rather uneventfully, Gabriel goes for a near Xerox of "I Think it's Going to Rain Today." At least Joe Cocker tried to make it a soulful rave-up, even if that didn't fully connect. While Gabriel uses his own way of singing in a hushed voice (think back to 1992's "Washing of the Water" or 1978's "Mother of Violence"), it's still too much like Newman's original.
Newman could be a defining influence behind this album's 100% orchestral style, given the fact he's put orchestral arrangements behind his piano forever, completely in lockstep with his family's line of work. He is a singer-songwriter Gabriel has taken after for a long time now, since he became a big admirer of him in the late 60s. But here, Gabriel is essentially trying to find more artistic fertile ground in a mine that Newman already drilled through. Therefore, it seem almost too perfect for Gabriel to be doing this cover- too expected, if you will. A little female appreciation is finally given out with a cover of Regina Spektor's 2006 composition "Apres Moi." Spektor's indie pop style, buoyed by the advantage she carries in her extensive piano training, makes it one of those affecting singer-songwriter ditties you often hear from sources such as Feist or Fiona Apple. The quirkiness of indie pop, even the stuff that never makes it to top 40 radio, is not my favourite contemporary development, as usually I find that field to be too cutesy/smart/artsy and knowingly hipster for its own good. Not all of it is this way, just a lot of what I hear. But Gabriel allows for some creative chamber music to be his backing and therefore "Apres Moi" is one of the standout cuts that sticks its head above the majority of the pack and, dare I say it, improves on Spektor's original?
Moving on, Gabriel harkens back to a more long-standing singer-songwriter with Neil Young who, for all his well-known compositions, is a hell of an underrated writer of gorgeous piano ballads too, even if he's more simplistic and wears his heart on his sleeve far more often than Newman. This skill of Young's stretches as far back as "After the Gold Rush" from 1969-70 or as recently as "The Way" from 2007. Neil's 1993 contribution to the Oscar-nominated film Philadelphia was the esteemed title track, becoming the veritable theme of the movie even if Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" got all the pub and ultimately the golden statuette. But "Philadelphia" is a tune that perfectly captured the sadness and human tragedy of AIDS, without ever directly mentioning it (its only literal reference to the movie's plot being the line "City of brotherly love/Don't turn your back on me/I don't want to be alone"). Such is the power of song: To never lyrically address an issue but still hit the nail on the head. Jonathan Demme, a friend of Neil's dating back to the music videos he directed for him in the 80s, better have been thanking his lucky stars for knowing Neil and getting that tremendous effort out of him. Supposedly, he was expecting a couple juiced up rockers about the hardships of life in the big city when you're dying from AIDS and carrying that stigma of not being a real man, being homosexual, etc. Instead, he got a grade A tearjerker. That being said, Gabriel's version is a disappointment. It's the only true lead balloon, opting to give a key change that just doesn't work and paves the way for this "Philadelphia" to resemble corny, mawkish soundtrack sap.
Yes, Peter's version doesn't really work much at all, which is too bad since the tune can be very touching when done properly, as evidenced by its inclusion in the final credits of Demme's film. Gabriel finally finds a pocket he can work out of by trying on Radiohead for size, specifically "Street Spirit (Fade Out)." It's not as if the 1995 original wasn't fatalistic and black itself, but with spare horns and funereal piano, he brings it down a few notches lower in dynamics, all without losing any of the hopeless void that Thom Yorke stewed up back in 1995. This "Street Spirit" redeems some of the more yawn-inducing moments from earlier in the album. Overall, Scratch My Back contains many moments of gorgeous, soft-bracing music with that classical spin you don't get to hear too much anymore. But Gabriel fails to convincingly deliver several of the tracks and despite the concept, it's not the artistic slam dunk one would hope for. Yet, taking many of these songs out of their element and giving them the subtle, silent treatment is a brave step for Gabriel as he seemingly tries to emulate Randy Newman only with the more artful, English sensibilities one has come to expect out of him all these years. Ever the progressive artist, this seems oddly natural and unpretentious for Gabriel, unless you find all classical melding with contemporary to be totally self-inflated regalia and snootiness (I don't... unless we're talking about Electric Light Orchestra).
It remains to be seen how I'll Scratch Yours will stand up to this disc- in some ways I look forward to that one more, since it has 12 different artists on tap. At least Peter Gabriel is bothering to release a studio album instead of staying preoccupied with Real World, soundtracks, interactive projects, etc. Scratch My Back will soon be available in his native United Kingdom, but North Americans have to wait a few more weeks (see release info at the top). In summary: Far from great, far from mediocre. I give it a slight chance that non-fans could be swayed by checking this out, but I suggest it'd be better for them to start with his earlier material to get accustomed to the man and his music. Oh and by the way, he's still perfecting his next album of original compositions, to be titled I/O. Hmmm, that one should be ready by about 2012 if past events are any indication.
Track Listing (Artist Being Covered):
1. Heroes (David Bowie)
2. Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon)
3. Mirrorball (Elbow)
4. Flume (Bon Iver)
5. Listening Wind (Talking Heads)
6. The Power of the Heart (Lou Reed)
7. My Body is a Cage (Arcade Fire)
8. The Book of Love (The Magnetic Fields)
9. I Think it's Going to Rain Today (Randy Newman)
10. Apres Moi (Regina Spektor)
11. Philadelphia (Neil Young)
12. Street Spirit (Fade Out) (Radiohead)
Rating: 3.5/5 stars (B)