Let’s face it, the covers album has not had the most illustrious of histories. Usually presented as -a tribute to our inspirations’ or -the record we always wanted to make’, but is more often than not shorthand for a lack of ideas or contractual obligation. Into this not so proud tradition ventures Peter Gabriel, a once huge rock star at a point in his career when paying tribute to his inspirations for some reason always seems like a valid option.
Except Peter Gabriel doesn’t do things by the book. The huge success of Genesis and some of his solo career behind him, he chose to set up Realworld Records and the WOMAD festival, work with interesting musicians and get involved in politics and humanitarian causes. In short, he didn’t become Phil Collins; a fact borne out Scratch My Back‘s tracklisting. So yes, while you have your David Bowies, Lou Reeds and Neil Youngs in there, you will also find tracks from Bon Iver, Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire and Elbow. What you won’t find, however, are bass, drums and guitars, Gabriel deciding to go down the orchestral route.
Scratch My Back could, as we have seen, been awful. What it is largely fascinating, sometimes ill-advised but often brilliant. -Heroes’ sets the pace, or to be honest lack of it. Every track is presented in a sombre, almost funereal fashion – transforming Paul Simon’s -Boy In The Bubble’ into something approaching a dramatic torch song. The recognisable melodies are there but you do have to work to recognise them at times, but then this clearly isn’t a exercise in banging out a few faithful cover versions.
The frequent moments when it works are stunning. Elbow’s -Mirrorball’, Bon Iver’s -Flume’ and The Magnetic Fields -Book Of Love’ are all simply gorgeous, enhanced by a grand setting that never does it and a voice that is still capable of conveying more emotion than most. Lou Reed’s recent -The Power Of Your Heart’ is a revelation, staying true to the simple elegance of the original and the inclusion of -I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ by Randy Newman proves that this wasn’t just a case of going through the NME cool list.
The downbeat approach doesn’t always hit the mark though, with the record starting to dip towards the end. It’s hard not to feel frustrated that he chose -My Body Is A Cage’ by Arcade Fire as opposed to one of their better tunes (the thought of -Wake Up’ in this format is mouth watering) and the record tails off with Young’s -Philadelphia’ and a version of -Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ that never really works. Such quibbles though are few. Scratch My Back is a brave move from an artist who by rites should be sitting back and cashing his royalty cheques and little else. Now we just have to wait for these artists to return the favour of the forthcoming I’ll Scratch Yours.