Peter Gabriel waits three years for his back to be scratched, and the wait wasn't necessarily worth it.
In 2010, Peter Gabriel released a sublime album of covers. They were all songs that came from the pop world, but Gabriel gave himself the guidelines to perform each one without the aid of guitars or drums. With just an orchestra, piano, and voice in tow, Scratch My Back astounded and confused listeners around the world. Some of Gabriel's renditions of such well known songs were so far removed from their original versions that only the presence of the lyrics suggested any musical connection. As the title suggested, Peter Gabriel thought it would be interesting if the favor was returned. All twelve songwriters (thirteen, if you count the deluxe pressings that came with Gabriel's cover of the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset") would select a song from the man's catalog, cover it, and the results would be an album called And I'll Scratch Yours to be released simultaneously with Scratch Me Back. It obviously didn't happen that way.
Of all the artists that Gabriel initially covered, nine were up for it; Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Regina Spektor, David Byrne, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, and Elbow. David Bowie, Neil Young, and Ray Davies all said "no thanks". Brian Eno, who co-wrote the song "Heroes" featured on Scratch My Back, picked up on Bowie's slack. Radiohead were actually on-board for And I'll Scratch Yours at one point, staking a claim to cover "Wallflower", but they proved themselves to be poor sports when they withdrew from the project after hearing Gabriel's cover of "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" and not liking it (I would have thought it to be an absolute honor for the first singer of Genesis to pick your song, out of millions, to cover). Those who chose to participate all missed their deadlines, and Peter Gabriel set out to find a few more artists to round out the album (Joseph Arthur, Feist collaborating with Timber Timbre). So now, after a three year delay, And I'll Scratch Yours is ready.
Obviously, And I'll Scratch Yours is not the same listening experience as Scratch My Back. From first note to last, Scratch My Back was passionate and intense. And I'll Scratch Yours wavers like a skyscraper missing key pieces. Passion comes and goes, as does a sense of adventure and/or sincerity. If you looked at the list of artists and thought "wow, that's going to be a mixed bag", you are absolutely correct. Peter Gabriel was (and hopefully still is) a consistently great songwriter, but he has assembled a most inconsistent album to represent his talents. When it comes to covering beloved songs, some listeners prefer untampered renditions. Others are disappointed if a musician doesn't take a few liberties to make a song "their own". And I'll Scratch Yours has both areas covered.
Arcade Fire's "Games Without Frontiers" is one of the tracks that doesn't try to do anything fancy, making it a recording that's more of an interest to fans of the band rather than fans of Gabriel's third album. Bon Iver's choice of "Come Talk To Me" is a perfect fit. The arrangement is not a dead ringer of the 1992 recording, but it achieves the same naked feeling of missing communication. Even the banjo doesn't sore-thumb the mix. Regina Spektor keeps the basic nuts and bolts of "Blood of Eden" intact. Her arrangement is less ornamental and her vocal performance follows suit. Considering that this song arose from a very fragile time in Peter Gabriel's personal life, Spektor's competently innocuous voice just doesn't make divorce sound that painful, or eventful for that matter. Feist, with the help of indie-folkers Timber Timbre, do the same thing to "Don't Give Up" but with even lazier enunciation over a bed of backing tracks that will bore you silly. Gabriel actually provided the lead vocal for Elbow's cover of "Mercy Street" making it perhaps the most redundant entry here.
Others have a bit more fun with their selections. David Byrne gets to start the album with an electroshock treatment of "I Don't Remember". With all the keyboard gurgles and that unmistakable Talking Heads voice, it's everything you would expect from David Byrne covering Peter Gabriel. Stephen Merritt also picked a song from the same Gabriel album, "Not One of Us". On the 1983 Plays Live album, Gabriel confirmed that the song was about feeling excluded from tightly-nit circles. In the hands of Merritt, it sounds like a group of the small, three-eyed aliens from Toy Story emerging from their saucer with a Casio (and let the record show that Merritt actually appreciated Gabriel's lack of irony when covering "The Book of Love" for Scratch My Back).
When it comes to Randy Newman, however, it's hard to tell if he's just covering "Big Time" in his own quirky manner of if he's ribbing the hell out of it. The piano parts he comes up for the chorus sounds broken and doofusy. And instead of having the protagonist say that their "bulge" is getting bigger, Newman makes it all about the guy's "ass" just before slipping in one last "Big time" at the end. It's random enough to inspire a Family Guy gag circa the first season ("This is even weirder than that time I heard Randy Newman covering Peter Gabriel!"). You'll forget about Arcade Fire long before you forget about this.
Singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur sets "Shock the Monkey" to a cathartic drone of guitars, giving the hit song a new identity that will either intrigue you or totally disgust you. Ditto for Lou Reed's deconstructionist take of "Solsbury Hill". Just as daring is the contribution by Brian Eno, the one guy who actually had the stones to cover something from Gabriel's often overlooked second album. The verses of "Mother of Violence" are done in spoken word, sounding like a close cousin to his own vocal contributions to his collaborations with Rick Holland. He sings the correct notes for the chorus, but everything else has changed radically. The word "fear" (that's the "mother of violence", by the way) is a meticulously stacked cluster chord of vocals and the music underneath is deadly electronic lava, a sharp contrast to the original with its acoustic guitar, piano and voice.
Paul Simon gets the last word on And I'll Scratch Yours by selecting "Biko". This is not surprising since Simon and Gabriel both share a political and musical interest in Africa. The track really sounds like Paul Simon covering Peter Gabriel with not much left to the imagination. He does threaten to get intricate with his 12-string from time to time, but he manages to restrain himself for the good of the song. And when Simon sings, it just doesn't sound like a big deal that an anti-apartheid activist was beaten to death by South African police. He gets the police room number wrong (if anyone actually cares) and shortens the last stanza from "And the eyes of the world are watching now" to "And the world is watching now". Hair-splitting, yes, but it's as if Paul Simon were giving a fatalistic shrug. "We're watching! But, we can't really do anything, can we? Nope..."
And I'll Scratch Yours is interesting in turns, but most of it is really just a disguised form of recycling. It's something that Peter Gabriel fans are all too familiar with. Between the compilations Shaking the Tree, Revisited and Hit, the soundtracks for Birdy and Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Gabriel covering himself with the orchestra on New Blood and Live Blood, I'd say that we've had enough of this recycling. And I'll Scratch Yours is just another way to get you to pay for the same songs yet again. This time around, a handful are worth the price. What we need is for Peter Gabriel to switch off his Spotify and get to work on that long-promised album I/O. But is that ever going to happen? Not if there's another way to sell "Solsbury Hill".