The fear is that many will dismiss this as just a covers album, an album to fill out the catalogue, to release while writing for the next real record. Dismissing Scratch My Back would be a serious error. The surprise that you feel when you hear that someone like Peter Gabriel is making a covers album should give you the hint not to dismiss it. An artist like Gabriel is hardly likely to do some cheap karaoke type record to fulfil contractual obligations. He must have some other interesting imaginative plan at work. Indeed, there is talk of the artists he has covered on this album then covering his work elsewhere... “you scratch my back and I’ll...” Ah! Anyway we can review the next volume in the series when it comes, this one is an astounding success. Gabriel is a creative sort and has made the sum of these twelve songs so much greater than the parts by producing them without drums and guitars and blending them into a lamenting statement of the state of the world in 2010.
The covers that are useful are the covers that give another angle, catch another hue of the original. Gabriel adds lashing of depth here to a range of artists’ work from David Bowie to Talking Heads to Randy Newman to Radiohead to Arcade Fire and Elbow. How he does it is by giving the songs these stripped back orchestral arrangements and creating a lament for the twenty first century world. The way he pieces the songs together and the way he then places them alongside each other opens up little vistas of powerful understatement.
The most inspired for me is Paul Simon’s Boy In The Bubble. Here is a song that has been conditioned in your mind with smiles and suns in its jaunty South African township rhythm. Gabriel turns it on his head and brings out the guttural cry of lament. Yes, it is still the day of “miracles and wonders” but “the bomb in the baby carriage” takes a more profiled place and “don’t cry” becomes the saddest of cries to a generation whose tragic inhumanity to human is revealed in the even more painful slo-mo! Likewise the suicide bomber in Talking Heads Listening Wind; haunting and menacing. Lou Reeds’ new song Power of The Heart becomes the hopeful spiritual, raising love to a transcendent thing somehow able to give us the strength to stay resilient through the world of Arcade Fire’s My Body Is A Cage and Radiohead’s sparse piano ballad Street Spirit (Fade Out).
Though Peter Gabriel’s song Biko might have been instrumental in changing my life, by awakening me to the injustices of South Africa where eventually I would take hundreds of students whose lives would also be changed, I have never been a massive fan. I have been an admirer of his art, social action and musical philanthropy for sure but that rhythmic Gabriel sound was just too clinical for my deeper longer musical tastes. This is my conversion album and that is not saying that it took other artist’s talents to do the converting because the words and music might belong to others but the songs here are totally under Gabriel’s ownership and craft. And at last my tastes are salivating!