Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back (RealWorld, 2010)

From his start as the original singer of Genesis over forty years ago, Peter Gabriel has defied categorization and simple expectations.  With Scratch My Back, his first album in eight years, Gabriel has put a new twist on the concept of a covers album -- he covers a number of different performers, and these performers will each in turn cover one of his songs for an album called I'll Scratch Yours.  Adding to his own challenge, Gabriel broke from his usual musical style to make this album accompanied not by a band, but by a piano and an orchestra.

Unfortunately, Gabriel's arranging and singing on Scratch My Back don't always match his ambition.  The tone for the album is set in a negative way with the first two songs, David Bowie's "Heroes" and Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble."  Gabriel tries to calm both these songs down, but winds up sucking the life out of them in the process.  Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage" is badly overwrought, and Gabriel's voice fails him when he tries to be quiet and delicate, as on Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)."  Thankfully, though, the album does have some strong moments.  Songs like "Mirror Ball" (Elbow), "The Book of Love" (The Magnetic Fields) and "The Power of Your Heart" (Lou Reed) effectively bring out Gabriel's romantic side in a way that doesn't often come out in Gabriel's own writing ("In Your Eyes" being the obvious exception).  The prescient "Listening Wind" is even more relevant now than it was when Talking Heads first recorded it in 1980, and Gabriel's interpretation brings the song squarely into the present.  (I kind of doubt that the rest of Talking Heads will be joining David Byrne for his contribution to I'll Scratch Yours, but I guess we'll find out.)  Regina Spektor's intriguingly cryptic "Après Moi" is something of a pleasant surprise as well.

Peter Gabriel has built an excellent, highly enviable career out of taking chances.  He overreaches a bit on Scratch My Back, though, and winds up missing more often than he hits.  The effort certainly doesn't diminish Gabriel's well-earned reputation, though, and I'm still very curious to hear how I'll Scratch Yours turns out.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

a live performance of "The Book of Love"

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