Rather than offering the listener an album of new material, Peter Gabriel has elected to cover a selection of artists, varying from the old and hip (Lou Reed, Paul Simon) to the new and hip (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver). The artists covered here are supposedly returning the favor and covering Gabriel tracks on the appropriately titled, forthcoming, I'll Scratch Yours. (True story.)
The album opens with David Bowie's “Heroes,” and it sets the funereal tone to follow. Strings swell in a sea absent of percussion as Gabriel mournfully, tentatively, half-sings and half-speaks the lyrics. The most bizarre feature of all of this is its absurd seriousness: The intensity of the vocals seems wholly inappropriate for a song as well-known and as frequently reproduced as this. Without wanting to deny the undoubted qualities of David Bowie, “Heroes” has become practically a cabaret number, something more associated with ironic drunk sing-alongs than real melodrama.
This flaw haunts the record in its entirety. “Flume” by Bon Iver is perhaps even more serious in Gabriel's hands than the already overly dramatic original was in Justin Vernon's. The weighty production muddies the sound with low strings and occasional suicidal-sounding horns. By the time we get to Radiohead's “Street Spirit,” the overall effect is not (the perhaps intended) one of sad indie moping but of a very real frustration with the sheer lack of fun, invention, and, ahem, spirit lacking in Gabriel's rendition. It's more awful than seeing a hundred bad Radiohead cover bands painfully attempt to play “No Surprises.”
There is something humorlessly ironic, too, about Gabriel's cover of “The Book Of Love” by The Magnetic Fields. While the original can definitely be read as a genuine reflection of the fantasticness of love, it can also be heard mockingly, as with all the other tracks on 69 Love Songs. But Gabriel's version has nary a shade of irony.
Beyond that, Gabriel's choice of source material is sometimes incomprehensible. Take, “My Body Is A Cage,” by Arcade Fire, for example. Of all the Arcade Fire songs to cover, why pick the one track that already seemed strangely out of place in its original setting? “Listening Wind” by Talking Heads is another strange one. Why something as recognizable as any of the other tracks here?
This kind of project prompts two questions: Who is this for? And why? The central problem with this album it is unclear there is a good answer to either of these. If it's just a compilation of some of Gabriel's favorite music right now, why does it need to be sold as an album? As with all covers records, the crucial issue is whether these renditions bring anything new to these songs. The answer is a resounding no.
Once laughed off as a prog rock dinosaur as the founder of Genesis, Peter Gabriel has gained an immense amount of newfound respect this decade through tireless collaborations, supporting the advancement of world music, and not being Phil Collins. After returning the favor of being namechecked by Vampire Weekend with a cover of "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," it's no suprise that Gabriel's been keeping tabs on the latest crazes in music. Scratch My Back may be the sum of Gabriel's collaborative spirit, with covers of everyone from Elbow, Bon Iver, to Arcade Fire and Radiohead to David Bowie and Paul Simon. Gabriel's first solo album since 2002's Up will no doubt bring younger bands to the attention of baby boomers who will buy anything Gabriel produces.