Peter Gabriel’s new album “Scratch My Back” is his first release in eight years and consists of 12 cover songs spanning the alt-pop-rock spectrum. He avoids scooping from the obvious rock canon, choosing instead great songs that roundly hovered just below the charts at the height of their popularity.
Gabriel, founder of the band Genesis, which was inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame last week (a ceremony Gabriel didn’t attend), has long been known as a master of crafting heart-wrenching music.
On “Scratch my Back,” instead of writing more sad songs of his own, Gabriel takes other artists’ songs and highlights their despondence.
Gabriel eschews guitars and drums in an effort to get at the basic melodic spirit of these tunes.
Orchestral and piano arrangements that slowly ascend, peak and then descend fill the space left by the rhythm’s departure.
This is intended to highlight the raw beauty of the lyrics, but the result, however, is a chain of songs that all sound the same.
It seems Peter Gabriel has finally gotten too weird for his own good.
He’s trying to get at a deeper lyrical meaning of some sort, but instead casts the same meaning onto every song: pain. Sadness and depression encumbers most of the album.
What makes a lot of the songs great is the juxtaposition of dark lyrics with kinetic music, whereas Gabriel’s treatments drag the listener into a pit of his own solemnity.
Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” previously effervescent and sublime, is now heavy and boring; it isn’t restructured or redefined, it’s suffocated. Gabriel drains all of the life out of the song and leaves only the sadness of the song’s theme.
Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart” is marred in a different manner. Gabriel turns it into a Disney movie theme song.
His rendition of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” closes the album. Where Thom Yorke’s voice soars, Gabriel’s sinks and cracks, bringing the lineage of despair slowly, painfully, and for this work, appropriately to an end.
One bright spot is Gabriel’s turn on the Talking Heads song “Listening Wind” in which the melody actually goes somewhere.
The re-structuring of this piece doesn’t abandon the mood of the original, but adds a depth to it.
The string section provides an elegant Irish influenced rhythm and a solid bridge that pulls Gabriel’s bouncing vocals through.
Bon Iver’s “Flume” and Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage” are both pretty solid tracks. It seems like these artists are a better fit for the mood Gabriel is reaching for on this piece.
All this being said, “Scratch My Back” is a decent album for dreary day listening. It should be suggested to listeners to save the money and download “Listening Wind” on iTunes.
Joshua Vaughan is a fourth year student majoring in English. He can be reached at JV662689@wcupa.edu.