Sunday, March 14, 2010

Peter Gabriel - 'Scratch My Back'

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 Bowie song. I can think of three versions I’d rather hear – Bowie, Nico, and TV on the Radio – and I really only want to hear two of them. But then, perhaps my aversion to that song stems from my awareness of the original. My favorite songs on this album are also the ones I’m least familiar with – a swelling orchestra captures the feeling of elation and romance on Elbow’s “Mirrorball,” a tale of a perfect date, to great effect. But when Gabriel dumbs down, say, Regina Spektor’s “Après Moi,” I get annoyed. Gabriel was one of the most brilliant pop purveyors in the ’80s; to hear him come up short here just hurts. That the album offers a few great covers – the Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love,” Bon Iver’s “Flume” – makes the album that much more disappointing overall.

Yet I know, when I’ll Scratch Yours drops, I’m going to pick it up, just to hear Bowie take on a Gabriel classic. Maybe he’ll have more success.


nicomo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nicomo said...

and you will be disappointed, because Bowie is the only one who has not accepted the exchange…

btw, i LOVE this album

Adam McGrath said...

Yeah, Gabriel was only able to get "Heroes" cause Eno was co-writer. I totally agree that these covers didn't really make me appreciate the originals any more, which is what a good cover should do. Some of the arrangements were fine, but this exchange is only a novelty.