The covers album is often a pursuit of those striving for a quick release from their record company contract or, worse still, a void for those without a significant creative impetus to dive into. Surely such statements could not be levelled at Peter Gabriel?
It seems unlikely. An EMI stalwart since he went solo in the 1970s, the former Genesis frontman took with him a lot of the group’s unpredictability, their extra dimension and, perhaps most importantly, their flair. More recently he has channelled his energies into the promotion of others through his Real World label, his own album releases far more intermittent.
But nagging doubts remain when listening to this, as said creative flair appears only in fits and starts, despite some fairly comprehensive overhauls of the original material. Each original artist is due to offer their own version of a Gabriel song in return, and it’s doubtful they will be able to invest this amount of time and effort in the interpretations, though at the very least Radiohead‘s cover of Wallflower should be well worth hearing.
Thom Yorke may, however, be nonplussed by Gabriel’s version of Street Spirit, which begins with the singer down in his boots and staring at the floor, before rising to a climax that feels curiously empty. Also disappointing is Heroes, so majestic and all-conquering in its original form. Here it is fragile and strangely lifeless, despite the injection of emotion in the vocal towards the end.
Gabriel works better when his source material is more outside of what would be regarded as mainstream. The substantial orchestrations are beautifully executed by The Durutti Column‘s John Metcalfe, each note clearly thought through and, in the case of Elbow‘s Mirrorball, thrillingly executed. It’s perhaps not that surprising that this should be one of the successes on the album, the similarity between the voices of Gabriel and Guy Garvey striking indeed.
Yet these frissons of excitement are fleetingly glimpsed, most keenly in moving versions of Bon Iver‘s Flume and Arcade Fire‘s My Body Is A Cage. Gabriel often inverts the mood and message of the original song, too. Along with Radiohead and Bowie, Paul Simon suffers from this treatment, with a perplexing sadness running through The Boy In The Bubble. Elsewhere Gabriel’s recent past as a Hollywood soundtrack composer is at the fore, with songs often delivered as if over closing credits.
Ultimately this is not the artistic disaster it could have been, for despite some uncertainties it is clear Peter Gabriel has plenty of original thoughts to add to these songs. But a different method of release might have better included the reciprocal covers from the artists themselves. It will be interesting indeed to see how they thank him.