Here’s a curious story. In 2010, Peter Gabriel released an album of cover versions, called Scratch My Back. On it he tackled songs by the likes of David Bowie, Paul Simon, Arcade Fire and Radiohead, and the original idea was that a companion album would be released simultaneously featuring the same artists covering Gabriel tunes.
A nice idea. Yet one that, for some reason, has been stuck in development hell for the past three years. Sadly, several of the artists originally slated to contribute ultimately declined (so there’s no Neil Young, Radiohead or Bowie to be found – although Brian Eno, who co-wrote Heroes, does make an appearance), and to save the album from a short running time, Feist and Joseph Arthur have been recruited to perform their take on Gabriel classics.
So, despite his name adorning the cover art, you won’t hear Gabriel’s voice on any of these tracks – and the results are, as you’d expect from such a long and messy gestation period, somewhat mixed. As usual with a project such as this, some tracks work, some don’t, and some are just carbon-copies of the original, thus rendering them somewhat pointless.
The litmus test for cover versions seems to be that the more adventurous you are, the more successful you’ll be. It’s certainly a mantra that works on I’ll Scratch Yours, with David Byrne continuing his recent terrific career revival with a superb, rather funky, version of I Don’t Remember, and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields brings his usual sardonic humour to Not One Of Us. Merritt’s vocals will never be universally acclaimed, but he manages to make one of Gabriel’s lesser-known songs sound like a Magnetic Fields outtake.
Similarly, Big Time, in the hands of Randy Newman, sounds just like one of his biting, sarcastic satires on fame and wealth, and Regina Spektor imbues Blood Of Eden with her own personality, stripping it down to a winsome piano rendition. It’s pleasant enough, but nothing that makes you forget the original versions.
Of course, some Peter Gabriel songs are so perfect they’re difficult to ruin – Mercy Street from 1986’s So being one of them. Elbow are the perfect band to cover this gorgeous, atmospheric ballad, and they successfully recreate the original’s mournful beauty. Feist brings a role-reversal take on the classic Don’t Give Up with the Canadian songstress taking Gabriel’s role on the verses, and Taylor Kirk of Timbre Timbre playing Kate Bush on the chorus. Again, it’s a nice cover version, but can’t hold a candle to the original.
Arcade Fire were one of the bands who apparently took some time to commit to the project – on paper, their take on Games Without Frontiers should be the perfect fit but, sadly, it’s all a bit too referential to make any real impression. Other artists who come a bit unstuck by not taking any risks are Bon Iver with a lengthy version of Come Talk To Me, and Joseph Arthur’s rather dull rendition of Shock The Monkey.
It’s left to two old-timers to show the younger generation how to do a cover version. Lou Reed delivers a typically strange, grating and unsettling version of Solsbury Hill, which is guaranteed to divide Gabriel fans but at least makes an impression, and Brian Eno’s take on Mother Of Violence, featuring droning synths, clattering drums and deadpan spoken vocals, is absolutely terrifying.
All in all, it’s hard to see this appealing to anyone other Gabriel completists – far too much time has passed since the release of its companion album, and it’s fair to say that Gabriel fans would have really preferred an album of new music (which hasn’t been heard since 2002). It serves to prove that, when it comes to Peter Gabriel, you can’t really improve on the original.