By Ryan Smith
I was really quite sure that this album was never going to happen, but at last, the grand concept begun by Peter Gabriel in 2010 is now, for the most part, complete. The first half of the project played out on Gabriel’s album Scratch My Back, where the artist covered 12 songs by songwriters he’d come to admire. While a few of these covers (all of which featured no guitar or drumkit and relied heavily on orchestral arrangements) were exceptional (“The Boy in the Bubble,” “Heroes,” and “The Book of Love”), I found most of the album to be fairly disappointing.
For the second half of the project, And I’ll Scratch Yours, Gabriel invited each of the songwriters he’d covered to take a shot at one of his tunes. Not everyone was willing to comply. Radiohead and Neil Young, artists which I respect 100%, failed to come through, which is unfortunate because I’d kill to hear what either’d have done with a Gabriel tune. For the most part, however, the experiment was a success. Quite thankfully, And I’ll Scratch Yours is a far more diverse and interesting record than Scratch My Back.
While there are some arrangements which stay true to their original versions, the vast majority of the covers are truly wonderful re-imaginings. Kicking things off is David Byrne of Talking Heads and his neat version of “I Don’t Remember.” This tune, from Gabriel’s third record, seemed to be perfect for Byrne and I could definitely hear the Talking Heads doing it justice. When I first picked up the album, I thought I could predict how Byrne was going to execute his version. Boy was I wrong! His cover, featuring electronic elements that remind me more of Gabriel’s Up era than of 1980, is delivered almost entirely in falsetto and it works in a strange way. Byrne mutters his way through the artfully arranged tune like a mental patient humming to himself in a padded cell and it seems to work even better for the words than Gabriel’s original delivery.
Bon Iver’s cover of “Come Talk To Me,” is absolutely breath-taking. The instrumentation is quite distinctly Bon Iver, with various instruments weaving in and out of the background. Melodies both complex and simplistic dance together to dazzling effect, and the vocal harmonies are incredible. This group never ceases to amaze me. The great Regina Spektor comes through with a very faithful adaptation of Gabriel’s “Blood of Eden.” Her gorgeous voice is as clear as a bell over warmly playful piano work and jazzy drums. Her genius shines with subtle touches, like what she does when she repeats the ‘we’ve done everything we can’ bit.
Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields delivers an insanely fun new wave interpretation of “Not One of Us.” His delightfully odd sense of humour takes the forefront and transforms the song into something I never could have predicted. Taking the place of, I’ll suggest Radiohead, one of the artists who didn’t participate in the project, is notable Real World artist Joseph Arthur. His boldly grim take on Gabriel’s classic “Shock the Monkey” is quite minimalist, driven by ambient arpeggios and laced with distortion. Plaintive vocals complete the picture.
Least surprising on the record is Randy Newman’s cover of “Big Time.” While the musical arrangement is brilliantly groovy with lots of subtle hooks, Newman’s vocals are exactly what you think they’re going to be. He does a great job of turning “Big Time” into one of his own tunes, however. If you’d never heard this tune before, you’d swear it had always been his. I must also agree with the liner notes that Randy’s adding ‘my ass is getting bigger’ is the perfect punchline to this version of the song and provides a good laugh. For such an artistic band as Arcade Fire, I was very surprised that their cover of “Games Without Frontiers” isn’t a whole lot different from the original. They still add their own flare to the tune and it is very cool, but when compared to the rest of the album, they don’t break as much new ground.
A couple of my favourite performances on the record are up next. “Mercy Street” is one of my all-time favourite Peter Gabriel tunes and Elbow’s emotionally charged rendition is absolutely stunning. The piano work is quite brilliant, and vocalist Guy Garvey perfectly captures the dreamy landscape of the lyrics. The jazz drum beat adds a different rhythm to the song that works, especially with the elegant lead piano melody on the bridge. One of my favourite artists of all time, Brian Eno, serves up a severe amount of awesome with his spoken-word version of “Mother of Violence.” For starters, the fact that Eno has chosen a song from Gabriel’s seldom-referenced second record is totally wicked (in fact, Eno’s sometime colleague Robert Fripp produced said record). What’s more is that the original “Mother of Violence” is one of the more serene and ballad-like tunes on said record. Not this time round. I love that Eno, renowned for his elevator-music-like ambient work, has unbelievably opted to transform the tune into a menacing and oppressively dark little masterpiece.
Eclectic Canadian wonder Feist and Timber Timbre have joined forces to put together a refreshingly sweet rendition of the oft-covered “Don’t Give Up.” In this version, the male and female roles have been swapped, with Feist providing the lead in the verses and Taylor Kirk’s Cohen-style delivery covering the choruses and bridge. While it would have been nice to hear Uncle Neil dish out a Gabriel tune, Feist put her heart into it and her effort is more than welcome here.
The late, great, and sorely missed Lou Reed chose to cover “Solsbury Hill.” In a brilliant move that was the kind of thing that made him such a wonderful artist, Lou transformed Peter’s quintessentially English “Hill,” a transcendental romp through the countryside on the verge of a new life with a wife and children, into his own acidic American street dystopia, seemingly telling the story of his own nihilistic rise, fall, and final re-birth… a punchline which has become all the more powerful since his unfortunate death. Reed haters and casual listeners alike might not understand this interpretation and will undoubtedly think he’s destroyed a classic, but fans will get to know Lou’s “Hill” as so very Lou that it should be viewed as an entirely different song.
Bringing the album to a close is Paul Simon’s touching run-through of “Biko,” Peter’s tribute to South African activist Stephen Biko. Since Simon has experimented in the past with South African music, it is fitting that he cover this tune. Paul Simon’s version is folkier and far less grim, but is no less moving than the original. It suffers from the lack of a triumphant coda, which Gabriel’s had, but so many folk songs end like Simon’s does, with a figurative ‘…’ at the end, beckoning listeners to become the triumph by learning from what was being sung.
I realise this was a fairly long review, but with so many great and diverse performances on one disc, it’s hard not to do it track-by-track. And I’ll Scratch Yours serves two equally awesome purposes. One, it is a celebration of Peter Gabriel and the wonderful impact he has had, not only on music, but on the world as well. Two, by having the twelve artists on board each take a song that isn’t theirs and force it into their own worlds, it is an opportunity to find out exactly what said artists are all about. How they all go about incorporating the tunes into those different worlds is easily one of the most spectacular things this music junkie has witnessed on record.
RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.