English singer/songwriter Peter Gabriel, who first attained musical fame as lead vocalist and flautist of rock band Genesis rises from the ashes with his first solo album in eight years. Scratch My Back offers a compilation of reinterpreted tracks originally belonging to the likes of Neil Young, David Bowie, The Magnetic Fields and the Talking Heads. Gabriel, most recently recognized for his Oscar-nominated song, “Down to Earth,” from the 2008 film “WALL-E,” takes a new direction with this cover album.
Inevitably, there seems to come a time in almost every artist’s career to release an album full of other people’s songs. This is one venture — though almost a rite of passage of any long-standing musician — that is both daunting and prone to failure. Gabriel’s turn has come and, despite the odds, he manages to create his own unique interpretation with Scratch My Back.
The first track, a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” is a strong and compelling introduction to the album. Taking on a song that has been covered and reinterpreted multiple times, Gabriel lends his own artistic ability to Bowie’s original progressive rock-driven track. Gabriel slows it down a bit, putting an emphasis on his unique, baritone voice. He replaces Bowie’s rhythm-driven drum and guitar with a steady but slow violin and strolling bass accompaniment. This version of “Heroes,” though decidedly different, reintroduces listeners to one of Bowie’s most popular compositions.
His rusty baritone voice is primarily what makes Gabriel’s cover album stand out among the rest. His tone is reminiscent of past musical eras characterized by gruff voices and influential rock ballads. Some of Gabriel’s arrangements are almost eerie sounding, but this is exactly what pulls you in. The listener can almost taste the palatable lyrics as they float and gloss over the ear. It is hard not to form some sort of connection to the moody and meaningful tracks coursing through Scratch My Back.
Gabriel’s covers of Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” and The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love” are especially compelling as Gabriel brings back the violin while adding a fluid and soft piano accompaniment. “My Body is a Cage” is particularly eerie and alluring with its minor key and Bowie’s lower tone. “The Book of Love” is more uplifting, as Gabriel wavers his mariner-like vocals in a gentler and more emotionally connected vibrato. His voice reaches to the core, allowing the listener to feel every emotion, internalizing every feeling that the track represents.
Gabriel even tackles a few female covers, like Regina Spektor’s “Apr?s Moi,” a feat not often attempted by male artists. In doing so, Gabriel offers a male interpretation of the track, giving it new meaning and a completely fresh sound. Gabriel’s creativeness on this album is unending, and it serves him well. He runs the risk of falling into repetitive and unoriginal covers, but he never nears the shark-infested waters that other cover artists have often come to face head on.
Scratch My Back brings a fresh and nuanced interpretation of these selected artists’ compositions. The only risks Gabriel runs are in his lack of upbeat tracks, and perhaps his apparent desire to be a little more grown-up on this album. However, these are easily excusable simply due to the power and undeniably moving portrayal offered in Scratch My Back. Not every album needs the clich? rhythm-driven, fist-pumping, up-tempo track, and Gabriel fairs much better without it.
4 stars out of 5.