Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back Review

Released 2010.  

BBC Review

A stunningly realised pop covers collection from the musical polymath.

Will Dean 2010

"It feels so unnatural / to sing your own name," sang Peter Gabriel last year, lending his voice to Hot Chip's cover of Vampire Weekend's Gabriel name-checking Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. The point seems to have extended to singing his own songs, as he starts the new decade with a collection of beautifully recorded covers that renege on guitars and drums in favour of an orchestra arranged by The Durutti Column's John Metcalfe. Indeed, the ads for Gabriel's two nights at the 02 boast "No guitars! No drums!"

It seems he doesn't need them – the results here are stunning. 

Scratch My Back is the first offering of a two-part project. The second will be released later in the year and, as you might have guessed, will be called I'll Scratch Yours. On it, the artists featured here will return the favour on Gabriel tracks. It's a pop swap shop.

The result of this is that many songs here, like Elbow's Mirrorball, are fairly modern, and Gabriel rarely dips into the obvious rock canon (Heroes aside). And the sparseness of the arrangements around the singer’s tender vocals makes this a thing of beauty. During the chorus of Bon Iver's Flume he sounds close to tears as he wrings the words out. On Paul Simon's The Boy in the Bubble – originally an upbeat song – Gabriel takes the lyrical juxtaposition of poverty/modernity and milks the sadness that Simon had hidden. 

Metcalfe's arrangements are stunning, too – they mirror Gabriel's mix of whispers and howls on Arcade Fire's My Body Is a Cage and create a sense of loved-up optimism on the best track here, a woozy take on The Magnetic Fields' The Book of Love. They make everything sound movie-score epic – not too surprising given Gabriel's recent work on Wall-E and Rabbit Proof Fence. It also makes certain that's there's plenty to discover in each track even if, as is the case with songs like Street Spirit, you've heard them thousands of times in their original form.

The pop world has finally caught up with the WOMAD-founder's open-minded approach to music from near and far and, as such, it's surprising, fitting and pleasing that one of the most essential albums of early 2010 is his. Wonderful.

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