Peter Gabriel has long been a monster in the music biz, immortalizing himself with hits like "Solsbury Hill," "Sledgehammer," and "In Your Eyes". It's the former Genesis lead singer's place in the classic rock canon that makes his most recent album so surprising: a cover album. And among the classic rock hits he reinvents (Bowie, The Kinks, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Neil Young), Gabriel also pays homage to the present indie scene. The list includes Bon Iver, Regina Spektor, The Magnetic Fields, and Arcade Fire. There's also some Radiohead in there, too - something I never thought I'd hear from Mr. Gabriel.
"Haunted" is the first word that comes to mind listening to Scratch My Back. Heavy strings hit hopeful chords among the somber melodies. Bowie's "Heroes" is the first track and the tune is nearly unrecognizable. You don't even think David Bowie. Gabriel makes "Heroes" his own in a way that irrevocably changes the tone. It evokes Nirvana's transformative effect on another Bowie classic, "The Man Who Sold the World."
When Cobain performed that song, he was just attaining a level of success. The name of the band was beginning to spread across the lips of disaffected American youth. Peter Gabriel doesn't need to work anymore, much less make a cover album. Scratch my Back, then, is a labor of love (Kurt's was too, I know). Lyrics drive this album, with Gabriel sticking religiously to a minimalist touch. His minimalism is notable in Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble." The infectiously poppy opening track on Simon's Graceland album is turned into a slow, emotional ballad.
With such a personal selection of songs, it's worth noting that the more familiar songs struck stronger chords in me. Scratch is by no stretch of the imagination an exciting album. It is, however, very emotional. And make no mistake, although lyrics dictated flow, Peter Gabriel is a master composer. Within the careful minimalism, he creates a richly textured, evocative soundscape. And his voice is as ghostly as his keys.
Highlights include the covers of "My Body is a Cage" (Arcade Fire), "Philadelphia" (Neil Young), and "Flume" (Bon Iver). "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" (Radiohead) is the extreme manifestation of minimalism I was talking about, and as a result, it's disconnected. I don't know if I'd like this song if I'd never heard Radiohead, but I certainly don't feel it as is. Frankly, he sounds broken until he does something cool by suddenly kicking in a creepy violin and Gabriel comes off like a carnie performer. But then it's back to the broken voice. The man sounds like he's dying! And then he moans, and the pain returns from before, but it's deeper now, and it's guttural and you cannot help but feel it: "Immerse your soul in love", he says. Within the bleak world of the album, this is nothing less than a heroic battle cry.
Heroes (David Bowie)
2. The 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)