Those awaiting a proper follow-up to Peter Gabriel’s last studio album Up (2002) will have to hold out a bit longer. Instead, Gabriel’s new full-length release is Scratch My Back, the first part of a two-album project where the former Genesis frontman and a select group of artists form a mutual appreciation society by covering each other’s songs. Scratch My Back — the half of the project that features Gabriel tackling tracks by friends, admirers, and personal favorites — is a 12-song set that favors like-minded inhabiters of the artier end of rock music, from David Bowie to Talking Heads to Radiohead. Forgoing the rock instrumentation as well as his stalwart backing band, Gabriel opts to deliver the tunes of his choice in minimalist orchestral arrangements.
This approach works very much in Gabriel’s favor, who relishes the opportunity to indulge himself in the songs of others. More than anything, Scratch My Back is a showcase not for Gabriel as a songwriter or a musician, but as a singer. Born of a genre chided for its cold intellectual distance and esoteric flights of fancy (progressive rock), Gabriel is a gifted — and somewhat underrated — vocalist whose greatest asset has always been the warmth of his voice, which instills even his most eccentric material with humanity and tenderness. Gabriel has made it clear that his goal musically with Scratch My Back was to strip down the arrangements to their emotional essence “so the songs could be really heard and felt”, a tactic which emphasizes his vocal talents. With the spotlight fixated on his voice, Gabriel absolutely nails his stated intention, gliding from intimate crooning to soulful full-bodied bellows to create a remarkably touching listening experience that’s uniformly compelling.
Take his version of the album’s opener, David Bowie’s Cold War Berlin anthem “Heroes”, which is utterly exquisite through and through. Gabriel opens the song with a gentle delicacy that gradually swells into bracing grandeur, bursting from the speakers at the climactic moment in expressive ecstasy. The moment I heard him hit the words “I… I can remember”, I jumped in my seat. While I like the original just fine, Gabriel’s interpretation is so affecting I don’t think I can go back to the Bowie version after this. It really is that stunning.
There’s no topping “Heroes”, but there are a few other winners worth highlighting. Lead single “The Book of Love” (originally by the Magnetic Fields) is particularly lovely due to the way Gabriel hits those descending one-word hooks. On the Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage”, the singer instills the song’s dramatic sweep with an ominous intensity (punctuated by him growling the word “cage” as low as he can) that highlights the nerve-wracked discontentment of the lyrics. Really, Gabriel’s only misstep is his take on Radiohead’s clockwork ballad “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, where his understated and precise delivery is at odds with his attempts to replicate Thom Yorke’s melodramatic, almost-mumbled sighs. This is especially disappointing as he often recalls the original vocalists quite effectively elsewhere, particularly on the Bowie and Randy Newman tunes.
What keeps Scratch My Back firmly in “quite good but not great” category of cover version compilations is that — with a few exceptions — the arrangements (tackled by John Metcalfe) tend to blend together, making the album come off as samey the longer it goes on, regardless of how ace Gabriel’s execution is. The album is littered with those unadorned sonic expanses that turn into epic surges, where Gabriel gives it his all as strings swell behind him. That’s not unwarranted when the artist being covered is, say, Elbow or The Bends-era Radiohead. But it occurs quite often, and the net effect of all this soul-stirring quasi-anthemic grandeur is that it inadvertently makes Scratch My Back feel like a Brian Eno-produced U2 album at points. When that occurs, I instinctively perk my ears up to await the arrival of the Edge’s distinctive chiming guitars, and that really throws me out of the intimate musical experience Gabriel has worked hard to craft.
Still, the backing music isn’t a deal-breaker, for it’s meant to serve as a backdrop for a clearly invigorated Gabriel who throws himself into the project. Gabriel is nothing if not a captivating singer, willing to sing each song with complete emotional conviction. In spite of the lack of original material, Scratch My Back is as rewarding an experience as a brand-new studio album could be, as it stands as a potent display of Gabriel’s power as a performer.