Friday, 5 February 2010

Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back (2010)

Gabriel's new release is an album of covers of the following songs by the following artists (later this year the following artists will release an album of their cover versions of Gabriel songs. It’s a chummy old world, Music, and no mistake):
'Heroes' (David Bowie)
'The Boy In The Bubble' (Paul Simon)
'Mirrorball' (Elbow)
'Flume' (Bon Iver)
'Listening Wind' (Talking Heads)
'The Power Of The Heart' (Lou Reed)
'My Body Is A Cage' (Arcade Fire)
'The Book Of Love' (Magnetic Fields)
'I Think It's Going to Rain Today' (Randy Newman)
'Après Moi' (Regina Spektor or Eartha Kitt)
'Philadelphia' (Neil Young)
'Street Spirit (Fade Out)' (Radiohead)
It’s all low-key stuff this; percussionless and guitar free, with Gabriel’s breathy voice sounding old and worn, and not altogether in a good way. There’s a deal of orchestration, swelling string sections and so on, which sometimes sounds good and sometimes sounds very middle-of-the-road. Gabriel works hard to convey restrained intensity of emotion, but mostly he conveys only a kind of strenuous, earnest dolorousness. The universal slowness here is plodding.

There are highlights, though: ‘Heroes’ is turned into a hill-shaped edifice with a very nice view from the top; and ‘My Body is a Cage’ starts blandly but gets all angsty and catarrhy, to rather striking effect. But ‘Boy in the Bubble’ is dreary, ‘Mirrorball’ sounds too much like the original, excepting only that Guy Garvey’s voice is considerably more wheezily graceful and expressive than is Gabriel's (‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ is also diminishingly faithful to the original). ‘Flume’ is meh; ‘Listening Wind’ too slow; ‘The Power of the Heart’ is treated so bloodlessly and respectfully it kills the song; ‘The Book Of Love’ isn’t bad, although Gabriel can’t manage the sly ironic slant of the original cut; and 'Philadelphia' is double-meh. Meh-meh. Worst of all is ‘Street Sprit (Fade Out)’, a cover that dispenses altogether with the original’s lovely downward-spiralling chiming guitar arpeggios, and with them all the original urgency and bite. What's left is a kind of meandering swampiness.

There’s some croaky beauty in this album, but not very much.

[Second thoughts. I wrote the above at the start of the week, and despite what was evidently not a very positive initial reaction I have continued listening to this album off and on since then. And it has grown on me, actually. I think my first impression was too harshly dismissive. Now I tend to think the Paul Simon cover rather beautiful, in a grave way: slowing it right down and leaving out the busy African layers of music focus attention on what are pretty smart Simonian lyrics; and the Elbow cover's rather lovely too, although it piggybacks on the loveliness of the original song rather. But it's a grower, this album. Either that, or it is stately middle-aged music, and a week is long enough for me to tone down my rage-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light aversion to middleaged art and accept that, you know, I am middle aged. Anyhow. This album is better than the above review implies.]


a. catani said...

I strogly suggest that, even if you're middle aged like me, keep on listening to this great work by PG. I agree with you that the album has ups and downs, but Power of the Heart is definitely an up, as is the case of Flume. As the life teaches us while we cross the middle age, less is more. And simple is beautiful. ;-)

Golitely said...

Gabriel is definitely a cautious artist, (he doesn't ride w/ the punk paradigm at all.. not in *that* way). A bit 'anal retentive' or something. That said, I love about half the versions on this Back scratcher of an album: Book Of Love, Philadelphia, I Think It's Going to Rain Today, the Elbow one...

Seems most things he does arrive by slow bloom. They only gradually come to life. His work w/ Genesis and his first 2 or 3 solo releases came about pretty quickly... but it's been a slow crawl since then. You'd think w/ a covers album he might have found a higher gear.

With PG I think it's not about pace but only matching some inner feeling w/ the sounds he's hearing /seeking. "There's someone to tell you a course toward a universal season" - a lovely line. Seems he works toward that... somewhere between Slow Burn and Waiting for the Big One!