Under Review: Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back

I’m not ashamed to call myself a Peter Gabriel fan.  Not just because I’m not ashamed of any of the music I listen to, but because I find both Gabriel’s solo work and albums with Genesis to be particularly masterful.  From iconic songs to forgotten gems, Gabriel’s career has had a strange trajectory that spans over 40 years.  Despite his status as a celebrated performer, Peter Gabriel isn’t as prolific a musician as you might expect.  In fact, he’s released very few proper studio albums since his 5 albums in 9 years run between ’77 (Peter Gabriel I or ‘Car’) and ’86 (So).  Sure, he’s made ventures into soundtrack composition and world music (most notably with his finally-realized Big Blue Ball project), but Gabriel’s own style has made some pretty dramatic turns in the 30+ years since his solo debut.  There have always been two pillars in Gabriel’s music that, if a song didn’t excel in one, it certainly made up for it with the other: songwriting and sonic craftsmanship.  Think of the groundbreaking sounds made by Robert Fripp and Tony Levin on songs like “Exposure” and “Big Time.”  There were simpler songs, too, with powerful lyrics overshadowing any musical thinness (“The Rhythm Of The Heat,” “Don’t Give Up”).  These two facets have defined Gabriel’s solo career and make his newest album, Scratch My Back, all the more frustrating to listen to.

First of all, Scratch My Back is a covers album, so already one of the strongest elements of Gabriel’s music is taken out of his hands.  Secondly, the music for the whole album is provided by The London Scratch Orchestra.  Yes, it’s an orchestral covers album.  It is also worth noting that, since 1992’s Us (a mostly-okay album with a kickass single, “Steam”), Gabriel has embraced a kind of hushed singing style that evokes resignation more than intensity.  Gabriel rarely belts out a chorus like he did in “On The Air” or “Sledgehammer” anymore.  Like it or not, Scratch My Back is no different.  Still, an artist as talented Gabriel is sure to put his own gripping spin on a handful of eclectic covers, right?  Well, let us examine a few selections in depth.  The set opens unpromisingly, with “Heroes,” not only my least-favorite Bowie song, but one of my least favorite songs overall.  Gabriel’s reading of it is pretty standard, and the orchestra’s delicate backing is an interesting interpretation of Eno’s over-processed synth tracks.  Along with covers of tunes by luminaries like Paul Simon and Randy Newman are songs from more recent acts of the indie pop persuasion.  These choices suggest that Gabriel is still keeping his ear to the ground, even though none of his renditions equal the originals.  Some of the indie covers work kinda well, notably Bon Iver’s “Flume” and Elbow’s “Mirrorball.”  Perhaps it’s because both of those songs’ original arrangements were somewhat lush and emotional to begin with that they are the standouts on Scratch My Back.  When Gabriel ventures into more experimental territory, Scratch My Back becomes a little iffy.

One song that you’d think would make for great reinvention in this context is the Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage,” which featured an orchestra on Neon Bible.  Unfortunately, Gabriel’s interpretation is tremendously less haunting than the original, and goes on too long without going anywhere.  The version of The Magnetic Fields’ signature tune, “The Book Of Love” is presented in an aching tenor as if to remind the listener that Gabriel can still sing the high notes, just not on the appropriate songs.  Like the titular tome in “The Book Of Love,” Scratch My Back is “long and boring,” and Gabriel should know better than to keep his fans waiting only to drop a mess like this album into our laps.  Perhaps his long-delayed I/O album will finally surface and redeem Gabriel from Scratch My Back’s joy-sucking malaise.  Then again, you could always go back and listen to any one of Gabriel’s numerous superb albums to remind yourself why you should expect so much more than Scratch My Back offers.

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~ by E. on February 24, 2010.

One Response to “Under Review: Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back”

  1. Like so many “elder statesmen of rock”, Gabriel (and his same-era peers) need to release an unbelievably stellar and innovative CD that surpasses any previous work. A tall order that is usually never met. Invariably, artists such as Gabriel, more often than not, rest on their laurels. And most of their blind-follower fans have no problem with that. (Hey, I think I just explained Bon Jovi’s career.)

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