Covers collections usually indicate something fishy on the part of an artist: boredom with their own material, creative bankruptcy, laziness. And while Scratch My Back‘s assemblage doesn’t necessarily suggest desperation or a total dearth of ideas, Peter Gabriel’s first album in eight years does carry the definite stink of pandering opportunism.
That’s not to say that Gabriel isn’t a big fan of all the songs here, which taken together, might form a respectable mixtape. But there isn’t enough of a backbone to the album to suggest that their choice is anything but positioning, an attempt to cement his cred or fast-track a comeback, by reminding us among which artists he should be considered. There’s David Bowie, for one, to accentuate his adventurism and morphing creative personality. There’s Arcade Fire, itself a Bowie-approved buzz band, for modernity. There’s Radiohead to close out the album, just in case someone still wasn’t satisfied.
Maybe I’m being a little bit too suspicious. However, the fact remains that there would be no problem with such glib song choices if these versions stood on their own. Yet instead of doing much of interest, Gabriel resorts to turning up the knobs, steering Elbow’s “Mirrorball” into the realm of the hyper-orchestral, drowning the song in a whirlpool of strings. Other tracks, when in doubt, seem to follow the same pattern. It can be said that Scratch My Back at least has a fixed stylistic presence, but this too often tends toward the bathetically expressive to be anything less than monotonous.
This kind of reputable, conservative tour through the contemporary songbook doesn’t suit Gabriel. His best material was spry and stylistically jumpy, not gloomy and waterlogged. Thus, any sense of stylistic coherence here contributes more to a deep sense of misdirection than a consistent statement. Instead of reminding us why his music was vital, it reads as a middling attempt to hitch his star to more currently powerful names.
On occasion, a treatment grants a certain prestige, like the stately version of Talking Heads’s “Listening Wind,” which, if a little overstuffed, at least twists the narrative focus of the original by amping up the sentiment. His whispery take on “Street Spirit,” ranges between intriguing and half-asleep. But small successes like this are counteracted by unrepentant slumming, covers of lightweights like Bon Iver. Much of this material feels beneath him. What doesn’t initially is brought down to that level by an absence of any real idea of how to give these songs a distinctive cast.