“Scratch My Back” - The latest offering by Peter Gabriel reviewed by Alan Hewitt.
I am sure that I have said it on more than one occasion that I am not a fan of cover versions. That is not to say that in the past I haven’t heard a cover and gone back to investigate the original. Nevertheless, in the main, I have always regarded covers as a lazy man’s excuse for not doing something new. However, Peter has taken a slightly different tack with this new project. What we have here is his rendering of other people’s songs, while the reciprocal part of that arrangement - their covers of his material has yet to emerge. So, given that fact, what does this first instalment offer to us? Well we shall see…
The album opens with one of David Bowie’s classic tracks: Heroes, which it has to be admitted, works very well. Peter’s use of orchestra to accompany him rather than a band, gives the song an entirely different edge whilst leaving the essential drama intact - a good start.
The Boy In The Bubble by Paul Simon comes next. I had already heard this track on Peter’s recent performance at Malmesbury for the “Witness” project. It didn’t grab me then and it still doesn’t now. Frankly, the dirge-like accompaniment of piano and cello are depressing in the extreme. Mind you, the original isn’t a bundle of laughs either but there you go!
Elbow’s Mirrorball is next up for the Gabriel treatment. I know nothing about Elbow apart from their name and the fact that they are yet another of the critics’ darlings but I won’t hold that against them. An altogether more interesting rendition which certainly intrigued me sufficiently to consider investigating the original so I suppose Peter has done his job well here.
Flume and Listening Wind were both unknown to me, although I have always been aware of the work of the latter’s creators; Talking Heads. Bon Iver were a complete unknown to me. Neither track really did anything for this listener, I‘m afraid.
Lou Reed’s work was an inspiration to Peter and so it is not surprising to see that he has covered one of his songs. The Power Of The Heart works much better here - a direct and emotional song with simple and understated accompaniment by violin and piano which, augmented by a marvellous vocal performance from Peter makes this the best track on the album so far.- excellent stuff!
Arcade Fire’s My Body Is A Cage comes next, another band of whom I have no knowledge apart from the name. Peter certainly can’t be accused of taking the easy option and covering well-known material. I don’t know what the original of this is like, but Peter’s rendition is an extremely dramatic affair, growing from a slow start to an anguished crescendo in which Peter’s vocal performance rates as one of the best I have ever head from the man!
The Book Of Love by Magnetic Fields was the other track which Peter premiered at the Malmesbury concert I mentioned earlier. On that performance, the track didn’t really make any impression on me at all. Here, however, it is a delight especially the contrast between Peter and Melanie’s vocals.
I Think It’s Going To Rain Today by Randy Newman has all the hallmarks of a bona fide classic, and Peter’s smoke-tinged vocals give it just the right amount of bathos and personally, I think I would love to see an acoustic show in which Peter performs a mix of his own tracks and some of the tracks from this album in a totally acoustic setting - something to think about, perhaps, Mr G?
Regina Spektor’s Apres Moi is another track I had never heard of before. Yet another surprisingly enjoyable effort.
Neil Young’s Philadelphia features another understated performance and the album is rounded off with Radiohead’s Street Spirit which brings the album to a suitably quiet resolution.
So there you have it. A covers album with a difference - and you would expect nothing less from Peter now, would you? The music here is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea but no one hearing the album can doubt the passion and power of the performances contained here. An album that will reward repeated listening and one which proves that there is still a vital and creative spark in Peter’s work. I can’t wait to hear what the artists who have “covered” Peter’s own make of it but in the meantime, bravo Peter!