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Listening to: Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

A review of Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back (2010)

It’s a tricky business, doing covers of well-known and well-loved songs. Perhaps not when you’re Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau and you can fall back on a long-established tradition of converting the day’s popular songs into improvised jazz, a process by which they become ‘standards.’

But when you’re the éminence grise of politically conscious progressive rock, the expectations are high. You can’t just go ahead and perform the songs in ways reminiscent of their original arrangement. You need to add something significantly new and insightful, shine a different light on them, make them your own. (Why this should be required is an interesting question, and – somewhat ironically – the rule only seems to apply to those who have proven themselves capable songwriters. Nobody expects Michael Bublé to add penetrating new insights to Frank Sinatra’s songs.)

The starting point for this collection was, as Gabriel says in the short but eloquent sleeve notes, to perform songs by others that he loves, and to use no drums or guitars. Setting a deliberate constraint like that is an interesting and useful artistic conceit – brushing up against the limits of the constraint helps clarify the vision (it’s a useful trick in all sorts of creative situations – try it some time in a meeting).

The end result is twelve tracks (53 minutes) of mostly quiet, stark beauty – some of the songs are very different from the originals, most are successful as covers, some are entirely outstanding and all shine a light on the original that wasn’t there before.

The songs are set orchestrally, arranged and orchestrated by John Metcalfe, sometimes with piano, and all the instruments are acoustic. The CD is beautifully recorded, obviously with a great deal of care and skill.

Here are my thoughts about each track:

David Bowie’s ‘Heroes‘ receives a tentative, cracked-voice, minor-key makeover. Without the 1970s German prog rock ‘motorik’ beat we know from the original, it becomes a lot more pensive and fragile sounding. The orchestra builds to a crescendo, Gabriel’s voice shifts up an octave into his ‘power range’ and, somehow, magically, this becomes a Peter Gabriel song. It ends suddenly, a little surprisingly, and in so-doing elegantly answers the question of how to end songs without a fade: just stop.

Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy In The Bubble‘ is next. This is a tough song to cover without drums. The original is so vividly and memorably marked by the concertina, Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass and Vusi Khumalo’s booming, elastic drums that it’s hard to make the connection at first. Curiously, and I think somewhat unfortunately, Peter Gabriel opts for a slight piano arpeggio to provide the rhythmic backing, slowing the track down to the ‘slow mo’ of the lyrics. Most disconcertingly, he re-chords much of the song, often creating discomfort between the melody and the backing. This does create (in me, at least) an interesting tension between what I’m expecting and what I’m getting. And of course the harmonies eventually resolve, but only after a fairly uncomfortable four minutes. I oscillate between thinking it’s genius and hating it. I suppose that makes it a good cover.

Elbow’s ‘Mirrorball,’ from 2008’s outstanding The Seldom Seen Kid, is an obvious choice because Gabriel’s and Elbow singer Guy Garvey’s voices are actually quite similar, and the original already has an orchestral backing in the chorus. I think this is well done but ultimately, perhaps, one of the lesser covers here. It does demonstrate, though, just how much Peter Gabriel has influenced the current ‘new wave’ of prog rock. You can easily hear it in Elbow, TV on the Radio, and many others. (The vocal similarities between Gabriel and Garvey are coincidental to the quality of the cover, the songwriting similarities aren’t – and that’s what makes Gabriel easily inhabit this song.)

I’m not familiar with Bon Iver’s ‘Flume,’ but it’s evidently a brilliant song and eerily Peter Gabriel like. This is perhaps the one track that could most easily pass for a Peter Gabriel original here (and I think that’s great praise). Part of what makes this arrangement so successful is that we’re used to hearing Gabriel’s voice paired with dense horn arrangements. While they’re typically synthetic pads, it is a sound he’s favoured for a few decades so ‘Flume’ sounds familiar to us sung by this voice with this backing. It would not be out of place on So or Us.

Talking Heads’ ‘Listening Wind‘ from 1980’s Brian Eno produced Remain in Light is one of the best covers I’ve ever heard, period. A satisfyingly quivering, squirming and twitching call to anti-colonial resistance in the original, Gabriel’s version here lifts it into the realm of essential listening for our troubled, war-torn 21st century. The swirling string arrangement sounds at times like the Kronos Quartet, a the ‘free trade zone’ in the lyrics suddenly sounds like everything you’ve ever heard about Baghdad’s Green Zone, sad and threatening at the same time.

The Power Of Your Heart‘ is a new Lou Reed tune. It doesn’t appear to be available on any Lou Reed releases yet – according to Google, he’s been playing it live for a few years, and it’s been recorded for a Cartier advertising campaign (but I couldn’t find it on that website, either; just on Youtube). This is a beautiful piece of song craft and suits Gabriel like a glove. It has the stateliness, the grace of his older slow songs, like ‘Don’t Give Up,’ while not exactly sounding like a Peter Gabriel original. The thoughtful arrangement gives is a 21st century Tin Pan Alley sheen that’s quite lovely.

Next up is Arcade Fire’s ‘My Body Is A Cage,’ a long-time favourite of mine and beautifully done here. It’s been re-chorded, too, but much more gently than ‘The Boy In The Bubble.’ I love the drama of the orchestration – it has a dark, movie-like scoring that suits it very well. What’s curious is that the Peter Gabriel version drifts between menace and fragility while the original is agonized, spiritual and seeking. There’s quite a contrast between the two, yet both versions shed light on the lyrics in entirely legitimate ways. I also love the ending: around minute 4:45, Gabriel introduces a choir in one of those incomparable Peter Gabriel moments of quiet, poignant beauty which – I think – elevates his version above the original if only for the subtlety and complexity of the orchestral arrangement.

I don’t know The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book Of Love,’ but this version makes me want to seek out the original (something all good covers should do). With lyrics that gently make fun of the silliness of romantic love’s gestures, words and songs, this doesn’t immediately jump out as something that would be a natural fit for Peter Gabriel. But the various Gabriel shows I’ve been to over the years revealed a gently funny man with a quiet sense of humour and a great deal of humanity. ‘The Book Of Love’ is a beautiful lighter moment on Scratch My Back.

I Think It’s Going To Rain Today‘ by Randy Newman is stylistically similar to the Lou Reed cover. It’s pensive, and the piano backing – recorded at a resonant and slightly wooly distance – makes it sound almost like a Schubert Lied. I don’t think it’s terribly successful, but it’s not very problematic either in the greater context of the record. It’s a resting point of sorts, and at just over 2 minutes it hasn’t been given enough time to reveal any magic it may hold.

Regina Spektor’s ‘Après Moi,’ on the other hand (another one I’m not familiar with in the original; Youtube to the rescue once more) seems very problematic to me. Here, the bigness of the arrangement makes what’s merely banal in the original overblown and unwieldy. It sounds a lot like one of those faux agony moments in many modern musicals – something by Andrew Lloyd Webber, perhaps. I also find the Peter Gabriel arrangement oddly pompous, adding circumstance where the original had very little, and I’m not sure of the interpretive intent. I’ve never been a big fan of Regina Spektor (in fact, I sold or gave away her first two CDs after owning them for a couple of years and never warming to them). And that thing she does in the chorus where she explains ‘après moi’ by immediately following it with ‘after me comes the flood’? Ham-fisted in the way the actors on CSI always explain everything in ‘casual conversation.’

I don’t have much to say about ‘Philadelphia,’ the Neil Young song. I feel similarly about it as I did about the Randy Newman tune discussed above. It’s quiet, to the point, and provides another resting point. ‘Quietly elegant’ might be the best way to describe it. I suspect that repeated listens will reveal more of it than I’ve discovered so far.

Finally, there’s Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)‘ which – without the rapidly picked guitar and high-pitched agony of Thom Yorke’s voice – is quite different. What I like here is that Peter Gabriel deliberately strains his voice near the top end of his register to achieve a similarly pained effect. I really like the instrumentation here, the piano and orchestral palette chosen are interesting and engaging. There’s a lightness and theatricality to the cover that the original doesn’t have and that Radiohead themselves only learned after recording ‘Street Spirit.’ I’m quite fond of this.

All the artists covered on Scratch My Back will also cover a Peter Gabriel song each, to be anthologized on a future CD called, presumably, And I’ll Scratch Yours. Some of these covers are currently being released on iTunes as song pairs (one Peter Gabriel song covered by someone else coupled with Peter’s cover of that artist’s song).

All told, I think Scratch My Back is one of the better cover records by a major artist I’ve heard. Its predominantly pensive and somber mood leaves me unsure of whether this will become a staple on my iPod, but I know there are songs here that I’ll prefer in this version over the original – and there are one or two I’ll prefer to skip over entirely. As always, the quirks may bring me back to this more frequently than I think. I’m learning this about great records: it’s the quirks that make them great.

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