It has been a while since Peter Gabriel released his covers-only album, Scratch My Back. But now that “Goldmine” has printed my review of the album in their May 7, 2010 issue (you can view the full magazine, ads and all by clicking here. Search for my name, Hans Morgenstern, in the pdf document to find the review). Now that it’s out there, I feel ready to justify the review, which had to stay within the length of about 200 words.
I gave the album what I think was a generous three out of five stars. The creativity, affection and effort put into Scratch My Back is undeniable. The result, on the other hand, proves a hard thing to enjoy. The entire album runs for nearly 54 minutes and features sparse but sometimes dynamic orchestral arrangements. It results in an elegiac and gloomy sounding work with barely any rhythm, beyond minimalist musical arrangements that seem to throb, hum and shimmer.
Scratch My Back proves a tough thing to swallow as fans like myself will have to again wait a little longer for a true, proper solo album (rumored to have been titled I/O, continuing with Gabriel’s two-letter motif of album titles). Gabriel has already skipped I/O once before in 2008, with the low-key release of Big Blue Ball, a collaboration with an array of artists capturing various songs developed from jam sessions recorded between 1991 and 1995.
Beyond containing no original new music by Gabriel, Scratch My Back’s instrumentation purposely avoids any guitar or drum parts. Since the album’s release, Gabriel has begun a world tour with full orchestra to stage a complicated road show of the album along with other songs from his catalog. Dubbed the New Blood Tour, if it had included a stop in Miami, I would have checked it out. Also, if there are ever plans for a DVD release, I am game to purchase it. However, the curiosity for new Gabriel music grows with each passing year, and Scratch My Back hardly offers enough to tied one over until that time comes.
Again, I cannot in good conscience slag this new album off as a lazy work. The problem is that it is just no fun to listen to. One of the problems with getting into Scratch My Back stems from the fact Gabriel has chosen to eschew any sense of drums from the arrangements. Gabriel has always been an imaginative rhythmic arranger, which fully came to fruition on his third, self-titled album. The 1980 album featured songs like “Intruder,” “Games Without Frontiers,” “Biko,” and a personal favorite, “And Through the Wire.” Gabriel practically re-invented the drum sound on rock records with “Intruder,” and his first exploration of blending African music with his own music came with “Biko.” It raised his songcraft to a whole new level.
Admittedly, the darkness of Gabriel’s music is a consistent aspect of his style. His last full-length, Up, an album permeated with musings on death, was probably his dreariest work yet. But I will not deny Up’s power and masterful songcraft. Still, you really have to be in the mood to listen to it.
The difference between the gloom-permeated Up versus Scratch My Back is its soulful quality. There is no denying the inventiveness of the string and horn arrangements that re-imagines the original songs Gabriel has chosen to cover on Scratch My Back, but none of these tracks feature a distinctive hook to welcome repeated listens. Granted, the song choices are amazing, from current, vital indie acts like Arcade Fire and Radiohead to some of the most important classic rock tracks by artists like David Bowie and Paul Simon. Still, one has to prepare to pack their patience and listen with attention to appreciate the subtleties in this work.
Beginning with the opener, Bowie’s “‘Heroes,’” unless you start the album with the volume turned way up, it will be almost half a minute before you realize the music has begun. The strings in “‘Heroes’” shimmer and vibrate almost on a single note, swelling ever so gradually, as if they were an ambient drone while Gabriel sings in hushed tones. But then, as Gabriel bellows, “I, I Can Remember/Standing, standing by the Wall” the strings explode into a pulsating and churning sound, very close in spirit to the wash of guitar noise that drove the original. The song ends with a quiet return to the soft intro, fading away into nothingness. “‘Heroes’” provides a simple, yet appropriate summary of the album, minimal arrangements that highlight the lyrics of the songs.
After tackling one of Bowie’s greatest songs, Gabriel moves on to interpret a track from one of the most popular and important world beat albums ever, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Gabriel’s version of “The Boy in the Bubble” capitalizes on the lyric’s melancholic irony, capturing that quality with a droney, minor key piano hook and a slowly bowed bass, vibrating with a mournful hum. This is far from the original jaunty piece recorded by Simon. Gabriel is expert at composing sad music, and this ranks up there with the heaviest of his work.
With his cover of Elbow’s “Mirrorball,” Gabriel begins to explore more contemporary territory, of which this album has a lot to offer to the alternative rock fan base (Magnetic Fields, Bon Iver and Regina Spektor are also among those represented). Of course, with “Mirrorball,” Gabriel picks a song written in the melancholy minor key. The difference here though, is that the original track has always sounded like it leant itself well to a symphonic interpretation, not to mention Gabriel’s deep, raspy voice is not too far off from the voice of Elbow singer Guy Garvey. But to take away from the original’s catchiness, Gabriel substitutes the original’s piano melody and introduces high-end, droning strings. At least there are some lively wind instruments to keep it somewhat light.
Three songs in, the dark tone of the album is set. In fact, I would say the only song on this album that bounces on some sense of perkiness is the studio outtake, “Waterloo Sunset.” The Kinks song can only be found on the deluxe edition of the album, on a second disc of bonus tracks. That song was probably cut out of the final track listing because it comes off as too bright. “But I don’t feel afraid/As long as I gaze on/Waterloo Sunset/I am in paradise,” Gabriel sings with almost a shy kind of joy. Behind his voice, horns and strings sway and hum with soft, swelling melodious buoyancy. The song ends as layers of Gabriel’s vocals pile up and loop on each other, in a blissful effect unparalleled by any of Scratch My Back’s proper album tracks.
Someone who should take a lot of credit (blame?) for the gloom that permeates this album is John Metcalfe, who arranged the instrumental parts with Gabriel. Metcalfe first appeared on the music scene as a member of Durutti Column, an experimental group of musicians who came out of Manchester during the heyday of the post punk movement. His arrangements for Scratch My Back seem to reveal that he comes from the Steve Reich or Philip Glass school of contemporary classical music, which uses very minimal melodies that sometimes feel like looping drones.
Meanwhile, throughout the album, Gabriel’s raspy voice mostly stays on the hushed side but sometimes rises to breathy bombast. It really becomes apparent that the lyrics are the most celebrated element here, as if this record was designed to highlight the lyrics. Dare I say, one stand out improvement above an original track is Gabriel’s take on the Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind.” It becomes a surreal, yet vivid story in Gabriel and Metcalfe’s hands. Also more interesting than the original, is Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage,” which features some of Gabriel’s most powerful singing on the entire album. Gabriel’s version features a more dynamic character than the original. It ends with some hope, as Gabriel’s voice brightens with each refrain of “set my spirit free” and “set my body free” and the soft sound of a boy’s choir rises above the graceful swell of trumpets, as strings churn vibrantly in the background.
Still, there is little more that stands out as much on the album… well, maybe the ultra-dramatic and sometimes creepy “Après Mois” from Regina Spektor. The album ends up closing on its darkest note with Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” It proves a very delicate and hushed finale, another track that begs the listener’s close attention. Here, Gabriel even removes the rhythmic delivery of the lyrics, droning, “All these things into position, all these things into position” and moaning the wordless phonetic bits almost like a tired, pained old man.
I was really hoping to like this album. The song choice is amazing, the concept curious, but the execution is just so heavy-handed and dreary. With no beat to hang on to, the music sort of melts into a thick tar of gloom that does not invite repeated listens. The vinyl version only just came out on April 20, but I remain on the fence about trying it out, though I imagine the complexity of the organic instrumentation would benefit from an analog presentation. Still, I fear it might just put me to sleep.
For now, it is on to anticipating Gabriel’s next project, which supposedly rounds up Gabriel covers by the musicians Gabriel chose to cover on Scratch My Back. It will be appropriately titled I’ll Scratch Yours. So far, a couple of amazing split singles have appeared featuring the Magnetic Fields’ take on “Not One of Us” and Bon Iver’s version of “Come Talk to Me.” On the alternate sides of the 7-inches are Gabriel’s versions of those band’s choice cuts from Scratch My Back. The small doses of the Gabriel cover versions are also much more digestible in the 7-inch single version. If ever there was a vinyl version of Scratch My Back I’d be interested in owning is a 7-inch box set of Scratch My Back/I’ll Scratch Yours. Just the visual representation of the Gabriel interpretations from Scratch My Back backed by the same band’s own version of a Gabriel song of their choosing, would be worth owning.
Then, when this Scratch My Back stuff winds down someday, we will hopefully see a new album. Then it will hopefully feature some loud percussion, weird guitar hooks and surprising noises crafted into music.