I love Peter Gabriel. I hate cover albums. So how to review an album of covers by this musical legend? Obviously, I'd much rather have a new studio release as the man has yet to disappoint, from 1977's "Peter Gabriel" to 2002's overlooked, but brilliant, "Up". I hate how long it takes to get a new full length studio release but at least he makes it worth your while time and again.
Looking at the tracklist there are a lot of intriguing artists covered here, from legends like David Bowie, Neil Young and Lou Reed, to more recent tastemakers like Radiohead and Bon Iver. But "Scratch My Back" is not your typical cover album as Gabriel has recorded all these tracks as just an orchestra and his voice. And what a voice it is, still one of the most exceptional in rock music.
So Gabriel has taken the road of reinterpreting these songs in his own style instead of doing straight remakes. The concept works more than I expected it to, but not enough to make this an essential release. When it works it is lovely however. Paul Simon's "Boy In The Bubble" is stripped to it's tender core, the version of Lou Reed's "The Power Of The Heart" is gorgeous and you just knew Gabriel would sound great on Bon Iver's "Flume". Other highlights include takes on "The Book Of Love" by The Magnetic Fields and Arcade Fire's "My Body Is A Cage".
Less successful is his drab take on "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" by Radiohead, a great song in its original form. It's damn near unrecognizable in Gabriel's near spoken word version. And turning David Bowie's "Heroes" into a funeral dirge seems blasphemous, not radical. All the glorious power of the original classic is sucked out here, it's a major misstep.
If you stick with the album after the dubious opening of "Heroes", you'll be rewarded with some fine moments. But all it does is make me realize how much I crave a new album of new Gabriel originals and how ultimately pointless cover albums really are.
"Scratch My Back" was released in the U.S. March 2, 2010 on Real World/Virgin Records.