As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s difficult to admit that I find myself struggling to appreciate his first new album in years.
There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his literate songwriting, meticulous soundscapes, and emotionally expressive voice. Behind the creepily organic album art, Scratch My Back is an experiment in subtraction. It finds Gabriel covering other artists’ songs, accompanied only by solo piano or orchestra (the oddly defensive marketing pitch “No drums, no guitars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soulful and gravelly even as a teenage cofounder of Genesis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to justify anything, so my pat reduction here is not totally fair. Gabriel and John Metcalfe clearly labored over these orchestral arrangements, but I miss the complex sonics of the rock and world music instrumentation that has characterized most of his music for over 40 years.
Gabriel did very nearly the opposite a decade ago, when his high-concept millennium project Ovo made a point of casting Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to sing his songs. The most recent collection of his own songs was 2002’s Up, followed in 2009 by the collaborative project Big Blue Ball. Casual fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active humanitarian, particularly as cofounder of Witness and The Elders, so the temporal gap between his musical ventures is not entirely explained by chronic procrastination (although he would probably be the first to admit he’s easily distracted). Gabriel has stated that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he prepares a new album over which he can claim sole authorship?
Gabriel told the New York Times:
“I was trying to make a grown-up record […] This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I’ve courted the lowest common denominator before, but there’s a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn’t present on this record.”
He is presumably referring to the media satire of “Games Without Frontiers” and “The Barry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledgehammer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaudeville silliness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musicians that I first listened to as a teenager, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expected myself to appreciate an album of him covering many songs that I know and love well (particularly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talking Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeated listening.
Many songwriters lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tortured, prickly Roger Waters is now a big smiley softie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been following that track too. After leaving Genesis in 1975 to deal with family issues, his first four solo albums were increasingly dark and sinister. But 1986’s So marked a noticeable turnaround in tone and an apparent psychic healing. Now reportedly still pals with his old Genesis cohorts, aging gracefully into a potbelly and gnomish goatee, remarrying, fathering two new sons, and reconciling with his two daughters from a previous marriage, he seemed to be transforming into a cuddly grandfather figure. A trickle of releases over the past decade showed him favoring directly-worded songs for children, including the Oscar-nominated “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsubtle “Animal Nation” (from The The Wild Thornberrys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).
Suddenly, he appears to have reversed back into depressive territory. Nearly every song chosen for Scratch My Back has been transformed into a mournful dirge. Especially when listened to in one sitting, I find many of the interpretations to be too depressing, and I actually like depressing music. My favorite examples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Donnie Darko), and Elbow’s agonizingly heartrending version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” (from the War Child benefit album Heroes).
Gabriel’s version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” has apparently become something of a sensation on YouTube, licensed in television shows, and played at celebrity weddings. Perhaps I’m coldhearted, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Songwriter Stephin Merritt says his version was sarcastic, while Gabriel’s is deadly serious:
At first I thought, How hilarious, he’s got a completely different take on the song. But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.
Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he intentionally transform it into something sentimental, singing the same words but altering the instrumentation and delivery? All that said, something to cherish in Gabriel’s cover is the presence of his daughter Melanie on backing vocals.
Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is one of the most ravishing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, providing a more organic rock structure to Gabriel’s perhaps over-processed studio original. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turning their gorgeous love song into a depressive bummer.
The once case where Gabriel’s bummer-o-vision may have actually been appropriate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”, which actually does have very dark lyrics.
The original recording of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unforgettable lead guitar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must subtract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emotion I associate with the song.
The one song I liked immediately was “Listening Wind”. The original is one of the odder tracks on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amazingly draws out a catchy melody embedded in the experimental song.
The Special Edition includes a second cd with four bonus tracks: a cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and alternate versions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been interesting to also include some of Gabriel’s past covers, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instrumental mixes of some of Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements.