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Album review: Peter Gabriel's 'Scratch My Back'

March 1, 2010 |  7:46 pm

P_Gabriel_240_ There seems to be two motivations behind Peter Gabriel's new album, one playful and the other more serious. The first gives the project its title: Gabriel covered compositions by 12 working artists, including David Bowie, Neil Young, Arcade Fire and the Magnetic Fields. He also invited them to plumb his own catalog for an upcoming answer record titled "I'll Scratch Yours." 

Some have called this proposition opportunistic, a way for Gabriel to both reassert his place alongside more iconic elders and make a DNA connection with arty youngsters. In fact, the gesture's more natural for Gabriel than it's been for most sexagenarians who've sought a lift from the kids. He's a lifelong collaborator whose WOMAD festivals and Real World label have cultivated a serious international music community; and his current nonmusical projects, like the Hub ("a YouTube for human rights"), imagine Internet-driven connectivity as a kind of potlatch.

More questionable is Gabriel's rendering of his half of the exchange. Instead of highlighting what younger artists actually seem to love about his own work -- its cosmopolitan spirit, written in the rhythms of soul, qawwali and Afrobeat -- Gabriel has gone for an exceedingly Western art song approach. No bass, no drums from the man who gave us "Sledgehammer"? Why?

I'd guess that Gabriel has a higher goal, as usual. By turning these songs into Shakespearean soliloquies, he argues for their complexity and depth, their right to be considered as art songs. The arrangements by John Metcalfe (a veteran of the classical-crossover world through his work in the Durutti Column) are either fully orchestral or simply piano-based; they expose the narrative and melodic bones of each song, connecting Paul Simon to John Adams and Bon Iver to Arvo Part.

The gesture seems a bit superfluous, given the prevalence of semiclassical music today. (Where's the Joanna Newsom song?) But it's loving, and when it works Gabriel's interpretations take your breath away. "Listening Wind," a somewhat forgotten Talking Heads song, reveals itself as a taut tale of international intrigue. Neil Young's "Philadelphia," a deep cut from the same film soundtrack that contained Gabriel's own Al Green-kissed "Lovetown," is restored to the status of a secular hymn.

These songs deserve Gabriel's serious consideration, as do all of his choices -- there's not a dud among them. Yet it's impossible to not pine for some rhythm here and a chance for this outstanding ballad singer to also show off his intact talent for soulful whooping and wailing. Maybe that's planned for Gabriel's next exchange. Because what's a potlatch without dancing?

-- Ann Powers

Peter Gabriel
"Scratch My Back"
Real World
Three stars (Out of four)