Peter Gabriel: Scratch My Back (EMI)

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Peter Gabriel: Heroes
Peter Gabriel: Scratch My Back (EMI)

An album where an artist covers the material of others is hardly a new concept, but you can guess that Peter Gabriel -- the ever sensitive quality controller, with his first album in eight years -- brings something special to the table.

Here he is on songs by those of his generation such as David Bowie (Heroes), Paul Simon (Boy in the Bubble), Randy Newman (I Think It's Going to Rain Today) and Neil Young (Philadelphia) as well newer artists such as Elbow (Mirrorball), Arcade Fire (My Body is a Cage), Regina Spektor (Apres Moi) and Magnetic Fields (The Book of Love).

Like the best interpreters (Sinatra for example), he turns the full spotlight on the lyrics -- as he did on Genesis' Lamb Lies Down on Broadway -- and what he finds in these songs is their ineffable sadness.

Bowie's grandiose and (yes, heroic) Heroes is in Gabriel's interpretation a melancholy piece saturated in European strings in the manner of Arvo Part and with hints of Philip Glass minimalism where the lyrics are whispered; Simon's upbeat and bouncy Afro-pop Boy in the Bubble is similarly pulled right back and over slow piano he sings as a man looking at the sad craziness of the world and feeling defeated by it.

He also delivers an exceptional treatment of Magnetic Fields/Stephin Merritt's baritone ballad The Book of Love as a chamber piece full of reflectiveness and deep affection. Lou Reed's The Power of the Heart is given a beautiful, stately and optimistic reading.

Conversely however Spektor's Apres Moi comes with cinematic strings and by the end he reached for his least appealing trait: he yelps with a kind of world music over-emotion and loses touch with the mood.

But as for the rest, Gabriel here sets his spare and usually understated vocals in austere orchestral arrangements (by John Metcalfe of Durutti Column, Nick Ingram and Will Gregory) which refer to contemporary classical music of the last half of last century (Part, John Tavener, John Adams, Henryk Gorecki and the minimalists such as Steve Reich, La Monte Young and of course Glass).

There is no sledgehammer/Sledgehammer here, just deep, different, intelligent and thought-provoking interpretations of some great songs. And Radiohead's bleak Street Spirit right at the end (after a wonderful version of Young's aching Philadelphia) is the fitting conclusion to an album which takes art-rock into art music.

My understanding is that those whose work Gabriel has chosen will be offering their own versions of Gabriel songs on a subsequent album: Neil Young on Moribund the Burgermeister perhaps?


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Glenn - Mar 2, 2010

I like lots of Peter's work and the DVD's of his concerts are some of the very best that you will see. However I find this CD is so slow-paced that I'm struggling to enjoy it. The term 'self-indulgent' comes to mind.

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