Peter Gabriel: “Scratch My Back”

Confession time: I’ve loved Peter Gabriel for about as long as I’ve loved music, but even I always found him to be one of the unlikeliest of pop stars. He’s always been a man too compelled by his myriad obsessions, too dogged in his fascinations and curiosities, to be particularly bothered with the rather more artificial trappings of celebrity. Consider those devices, those enduring preoccupations, that have always driven Gabriel’s music ever since he left Genesis: The dusty rhythms and spooky textures of third world music, the ghostly effects of the latest studio technology, lyrics that, upon close inspection, reveal dark psycho-sexual underpinnings. Gabriel’s has been a career built largely on fleshing out these recurring concepts; how could he possibly be a candidate for pop stardom?

But pop stardom found him, and with no concessions or compromises made. His big blockbuster album was So, and while its success was surely aided by a handful of groundbreaking music videos, it must be said that the music itself was still rich with world beats, with low-moaning synths and then-edgy technology, with lyrics that barely veiled something sinister at their heart. The thing is, though, Gabriel didn’t have to compromise these things, because there’s still another Gabriel obsession, one that he’s somewhat lost sight of since then but was, at the time of So, chief among his concerns and as integral to the fabric of that album as any of these others– and that obsession is song itself. Forget, for a moment, the textured soundscapes of his instrumental works, or even the more production-oriented nature of his Up record; when he made So, Gabriel was still keen on inverting Motown (“Sledgehammer”), creating dance-rock anthems for the MTV generation (“Big Time”), and crafting sweet lover’s hymns that would endure for far longer than their Top 40 shelf life (“In Your Eyes”).

And that’s why his latest, oddest project, Scratch My Back, isn’t really so odd at all. It is, admittedly, a bit of a shock at first; Gabriel’s music has always had rhythm at its core but this album is drumless, and where So and his other albums utilized the latest in recording technology, this one is totally orchestral, no digital effects to be heard. There are no guitars, either– just a piano, strings, winds, brass, a choir on one number. And then there’s the fact that Gabriel didn’t write any of these songs: It’s a covers album in concept but so much more than that in execution. Gabriel brings to the set a musicality, an enduring fascination with and a veteran’s knowledge of songcraft that makes this not some lame stopgag, but an exploratory and supremely inventive set, as well as his most enjoyable and consistent pop album since So.

At no point does it sound like Gabriel is doing these songs just to do them; this isn’t homage but interpretation, the singer stretching these songs, finding their breaking points, exploring them from every angle and ultimately presenting them in ways we’ve never heard them before. And it isn’t just a technical exercise, either– Gabriel understands these songs, he understands the lyrics, and his recreations are motivated not just by a professional interest but by a real, learned and musical sense of what they’re about. He opens the album with one of its boldest statements, and it works brilliantly: David Bowie’s “Heroes” is slowed down to a practically funeral pace. In this context it sounds less like triumph and more like mere survival, yet Gabriel captures perfectly both the desperation and the hopefulness in the lyric. Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” is inverted even further; once again, Gabriel slows the song down to almost a dirge, but this highlights the lyric, which Gabriel sings not with Simon’s confidence but with a sense of incredulity that opens the song into something brokenhearted and mournful, but rich in empathy and compassion.

But not everything is dour, despite whatever connotations a low-key orchestral album like this might have; in fact, Gabriel and arranger John Metcalfe explore an array of colors here, and their ingenuity is a triumph. One might wonder how Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind,” a song so centered upon pulsing rhythms, would translate into a drumless setting, but Metcalfe preserves the song’s core while casting it in a new setting, all nervous energy and building tension in the strings. A brilliant crescendo of strings and brass carried Bon Iver’s “Flume” to a higher, more anthemic place than it’s ever gone before, while Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is given a ravishing, beautiful arrangement that enhances the song’s inherent musicality while bringing to it an entirely new set of colors. As inventive as Metcalfe is as arranger, Gabriel is equally intuitive as a singer; listen to him highlight the wry irony in The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love,” or give voice to sheer, abject doubt and dread in “The Boy in the Bubble.”

Gabriel explores the works not only of his peers, but also of indie upstarts, and, to his credit, he avoids easy selections; there are no (more) Vampire Weekend covers here, despite what an short distance one has to travel from that band’s work to Gabriel’s own. And when he does pick a song that might sound on paper like an easy fit– Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage,” which already sounded something like a Peter Gabriel song– it’s taken in the opposite direction you’d think it would be, in this case a sinister piano ballad with horns voicing their anxiety in the background. At the end, the song explodes, putting to rest any doubts about whether orchestral music like this can be truly thrilling and visceral.

Of course, to hear Gabriel tell it, this album is only the first part of an ongoing experiment; he has approached all of the artists assembled here and asked them to return the favor by covering one of Gabriel’s own songs, and many of them, evidently, plan on doing so. But as thrilling as the prospect of Paul Simon doing “Biko” may be, it doesn’t serve this album to bog it down in conceptual narrative; whether a second volume ever appears or not, Scratch My Back stands as a stirring, inventive, and beautiful celebration of song, made by a man who surely qualifies as an expert on the subject, and who here sounds a bit like a musical scholar, but mostly like an artist reconnected to is muse, having fun and exploring his limits like he hasn’t done in years.

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