PETER GABRIEL - SCRATCH MY BACK
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!
Grateful for your insights on this one Steve, as I've been loving it for a couple weeks now. Your application of the word "lament" pulls together everything I've been feeling and thinking.
Posted by: Mike | 04/03/2010 at 05:32 PM
What? No drums or guitars?!! Can it still be called music? ;-)
I loved "Trespass" (esp Visons of Angels) and really liked "So" but I respected rather than enthused on his output in between or since. Would have loved to see the theatrics of a live early Genesis show. We need more theatrics in our attempts at communication, especially about things that are important. Lady GaGa seems to understand this, but maybe lacks the depth to go along with it - too much wrapping, not enough content?
Maybe I'll give this a go (even if it won't be the focus of a live tour or come with a free powder wig).
Posted by: John "Napoleon in rags" T. | 05/03/2010 at 05:34 PM
PS Are those 2 rose petals or 2 red blood cells rubbing back to back? What strange symbolism is this? What does it all mean? Is it all in the interpretation? Or is it just a pretty picture?....
Posted by: John "Napoleon in rags" T. | 05/03/2010 at 05:46 PM
Okay - I hadn't realised you were ambivalent about Mr Gabriel's talents up to now, Steve!
As far as I'm concerned, the man could sing excerpts from the phone book, and make me emotional listening to it. I love the sense of mystery he draws you into with his music - there's this magical other-worldliness about so much of his material.
Essential listening would be for theo-musicologists would be his "US" album from 1992 - the album is an exploration of brokenness and redemption in human relationships, typified in "Washing of the Water" and "Blood of Eden" (a regular live staple, which he introduces to audiences as an exploration of the Garden of Eden story).
Posted by: Paul Hutchinson | 08/03/2010 at 11:26 AM
For a feast of the kind of visual stimulation that John T has referred to, track down a video copy of the wonderful "Secret World Live". This used to be regular Sunday afternoon viewing for me as audio-visual therapy :-) Beginning with Peter in a phone box singing "Come Talk To Me" down the phone to Paula Cole, and ending with the celebratory "In Your Eyes" joined on stage by Papa Wemba, (with several curious visual detours along the way - e.g. exiting the stage by packing the entire band into a suitcase, just before being abducted by an alien mothership!) I always thought it seemed to share some similarities with the whole "Zoo TV" thing, which was round the same time (albeit without the huge quantities of irony in U2's version).
"Scratch My Back" has now been ordered - thanks for jogging my attention on it, Steve...
Posted by: Paul Hutchinson | 08/03/2010 at 11:27 AM
Hey Steve, managed to get to the London 02 concert, amazing and disturbing at the same time... have written up a review if you get a moment to peruse which mentions your post here:
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