Peter Gabriel - Scratch My Back

by Rich Morris Rating:4 Release Date:2010-02-15

Hmm. Peter Gabriel, currently enjoying something of a critical renaissance thanks to bands like Vampire Weekend and Hot Chip acknowledging his influence, has recorded a covers album. The choice of songs - modern classics from Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and Elbow, along with works by older-school tunesmiths like Paul Simon, Neil Young and, er, Randy Newman - appears to be designed to capture some slightly younger potential listeners, who might have only recently become aware of Gabriel's existence. They're mostly very good songs - especially 'Listening Wind' by Talking Heads, 'Heroes' by Bowie, and 'The Book of Love' by The Magnetic Fields - but hardly cutting edge; they're probably all on your slightly trendy Dad's iPod. When reviewing a covers album, though, I can't really rate the quality of the songs - except to say that more than one are completely unsuited both to Gabriel's voice and the slow, stripped down, orchestral treatment they receive here. Instead, I should be asking: Is the exercise worthwhile? Does Gabriel's singing bring out anything new? Do the arrangements make you think about the song differently? The answers are: no, NO, and well, not really.

'Heroes' is the first track, and Gabriel has shorn it of the insistent bassline and made it painfully, deathly slow. It starts with a soft murmur and builds up to a striking crescendo, with almost Steve Reich-esque contrapuntal strings and Gabriel showing off his vocal range. It's actually really rather good. Hey, maybe this record wasn't such a bad idea after all!

Or maybe it was. Next, Paul Simon's poignant 'The Boy in The Bubble' is rendered with glum lethargy, before Pete tackles something more contemporary in Elbow's 'Mirrorball'. The original is swathed in strings, so Gabriel doing the same thing - without any other instrumentation - is hardly revolutionary. But it's the way he sings it that really grates; whereas Guy Garvey's original vocal combined world-weariness and tenderness is a highly seductive way, Gabriel's has as much passion and warmth as a dead fish. He sounds like he's reading aloud from a Macroeconomics textbook to a half-empty lecture hall. It's dreary and pointless and about a millionth as good as the original.

The same sentence can be used to describe other efforts. 'Listening Wind' is passable but pales in comparison to Byrne and Eno's vibrant, complex version. 'The Book of Love' is a shocker, shorn of all warmth and wit and feeling, and sung - I'm sorry - really badly. The choice of Bon Iver's 'Flume' is baffling; if your one and only trick on a covers album is to make every track slow, mournful and melodramatic, then don't cover a song that was slow, mournful and melodramatic to begin with. The exact same thing can be said of Arcade Fire's 'My Body is a Cage'. A different treatment - a krautrock version maybe, or one played solely on traditional African instruments - might have been intriguing and surprising, but keeping the same structure, the same atmosphere, and the same dynamics seems to utterly defeat the point of covering the song. The rare occasions when Gabriel takes some risks with the material - on the aforementioned 'Heroes', for example, or an eerie, dissonant version of Radiohead's 'Street Spirit' - are but small shafts of light puncturing the soporific gloom of a record that mostly feels like a depressing, monotonous trudge through Peter Gabriel's record collection.

Pete Sykes

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