It feels odd writing about a cover album by Peter Gabriel. I mean, the man has enough material of his own to keep me busy for a month, why would I choose to, well, cover this particular album? But that’s just it, he makes it his own. Every song becomes Peter Gabriel’s as much as his own compositions, and that is something which is rare indeed. Sometimes an artist will absorb a song, make it theirs (like Johnny Cash with Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”), but I’ve never heard an album made entirely of covers which sounds so formidably cohesive and partial to the style and the spirit of the cover artist.
What’s happening here is that Peter Gabriel is giving me the ability to enjoy some bands I can’t really get into otherwise. Regina Spektor, Bon Iver and Arcade Fire are definitely on top of that list. I’ve tried, I really have, but there’s something that puts me off all of these very big names in the last few years’ music. But when I hear them in Peter Gabriel’s rendition, they start making sense, I feel like I’m opening up to them. He builds tension like a master, he can work with tools I feel the artists he covers don’t have access to, both musically speaking and when it comes to basic emotional expression. Peter Gabriel is overwhelming on this album, he’s monumental, so much so it’s a bit scary at times. The epic intensity he infuses some of the tracks with is just staggering, it’s like experiencing a Lars Von Trier & Peter Jackson hybrid through music. The same vaguely claustrophobic, unrelenting drama Lars Von Trier builds around, to the power of Peter Jackson’s vast shots, immense spaces and overwhelming detail. All of this bound together by Peter Gabriel’s slightly raspy voice, sometimes half-whispered, other times soaring, lamenting, exploding and twisting like a red ribbon, sewing the album’s edges shut into the shape of a red blood cell.
Stylistically I think what he did here is create modern ballroom music. I can picture it now, an entire show based on the classic form of couples’ dancing – waltz, tango and other, stranger movements – in a spotless, perfectly clean and illuminated ballroom. There’s no need for further acting, for choreography to try and “represent” or “picture” different states through dancing. No need whatsoever. Just Peter Gabriel’s music, fiercely dramatic, and a couple dancing the best they can. This should be enough to speak of tragedy, sin, wit and determination.
The only track on the album I feel is a bit of a stretch is the cover of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit”. That song is about as emotional and musically flawless as they come, the reinterpretation doesn’t really add anything to that. In fact, by focusing on one aspect of the song almost exclusively, I believe it takes away from the original. But hey, it’s one of twelve tracks, and when regarded in relation to the rest of the album, it makes perfect sense. It’s only when matched up to the original that I feel it’s a bit lackluster. In any case, this album, as a whole, is truly an amazing, it feels as dramatic as Genesis (the Biblical event, never mind the band) while still remaining very personal.
But wait, there’s more! This album is just the first part of a musical project. All the artists covered on “Scratch my back” have taken it upon themselves to cover one of his songs in turn, creating a collection which will be released as “And I’ll Scratch Yours”, sometime in the future. I’m a tiny bit skeptical about the outcome. As I’ve said, some of these guys aren’t quite at the level of musical proficiency and sheer power Peter Gabriel has achieved in over forty years of experience. However, he didn’t choose wrong. Just because I don’t get some of them, I believe they are very capable, talented groups and individuals. Hopefully, Peter Gabriel’s approach will set the bar high enough for them to really give it their best. Enjoy, and think of Chekhov as you listen. Just my suggestion.