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Album Review: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

BY ERIC SUNDERMANN | MARCH 02, 2010 7:30 AM

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Peter Gabriel rose to fame a couple decades ago with hits like “Solsbury Hill,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Sledgehammer.” Now, at age 60 — and eight years after his most recent album release — the singer/songwriter decided to produce a covers record called Scratch My Back with a track listing that must have fallen out of a hipster’s back pocket.

Before listening, the question asked is simply — why is this balding, gray-haired, old dude covering the likes of Radiohead, Bon Iver, and Arcade Fire? What the hell is he doing?

Well, Gabriel provides us with the answer: making good effing music.

Initially, the thought of a covers record conjures up the idea of creative bankruptcy, especially for an artist as seasoned as Gabriel. It would be easy to expect that the artist has “nothing left in the tank,” or “is throwing in the towel,” or any other cliché ending to what was once a great career.

Moreover, covering music is tricky because, aside from the aforementioned problems, the artist has to deal with listeners’ preconceived notions about the music. He’s not presenting brand-new songs but rather, songs that have a story behind them — songs that may have been a first dance, or a first kiss, or a goodbye.

But Gabriel is smart. Not only is he able to give a new, creative spin on each track, he does this while maintaining the integrity of nearly every song.

For example, in Bon Iver’s “Flume,” Gabriel abandons the acoustic-guitar-driven melodies and Justin Vernon’s emotional falsetto, turning the track into a soft piano ballad that showcases Gabriel’s soaring, full, tenor voice. And even though the artist changed the song completely, he still managed to encompass all the desperate sadness and loneliness of the original.

But the whole album isn’t just a piano ballad — Gabriel incorporates many strings into his new interpretations. In his version of Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind,” he approaches the cover as an orchestral exploration, utilizing bouncing violins rather than the synthesizers. And rather than butchering a classic, he succeeds — a common theme throughout the LP.

However, Gabriel isn’t perfect in his attempt. In his version of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” the sound is, well, boring. In a song made famous by its pulsing guitars and upbeat tempo, pulling it back to only padding chords underneath is too much of a loss. “Heroes” is one of the few spots on the album where Gabriel’s reinvention simply does not work.

Despite the few flaws, Scratch My Back isn’t just a thrown-together covers record that Gabriel cut in his basement. It’s much more. He takes this opportunity to not only pay tribute to some of his favorite music but to give each song a new direction. Which, for someone who’s been in the music industry for decades, is an admirable feat.

For these attempts, even though Scratch My Back may not be completely successful, the artist must be commended.

At age 60, Gabriel proves that even old guys can be hip.


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