I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew, without hearing a single note, that I would not like Peter Gabriel’s new covers album Scratch My Back. No, it wasn’t the copious amounts of middling reviews (although Spin seems to have dug it). I’m too stupidly loyal to my favorite artists. Rather, it was while reading the liner notes that I realized I was screwed. In describing the parameters he set for this project, Gabriel writes, “The rules applied in this case were no drums and guitars. I also wanted to make the vocals as personal as possible.” Sweet singer/songwriter self-importance, brah.
As it turns out, while I underestimated some of Gabriel’s string arrangements – piano, viola, bass, etc. – I still pretty much more or less called it with those two sentences. The result: Stripped down covers that suck all of the energy out of the originals. Just because he avoided drums doesn’t mean Gabriel couldn’t have injected some pep into these tunes, but too often he falls back on subdued delivery over plaintive piano. Sometimes it works (“The Boy in the Bubble”), but too often it begs the question, why release these covers? Why not just write original words?
I understand the artistic exchange of the project – a future album will feature artists covering Gabriel’s songs – but given that the music is entirely new, why take lyrics from beloved songs like the David Bowie/Brian Eno classic “Heroes” or the Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage” and then render them completely boring? I’m not against turning pop songs into sad, understated affairs (Iron & Wine’s “Such Great Heights” and Gary Jules’ take on “Mad World” both come to mind), but Gabriel can’t sustain the same trick for nearly an hour.
The biggest offender is “Heroes.” I really could’ve done with a different
Yet I know, when I’ll Scratch Yours drops, I’m going to pick it up, just to hear