Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Peter Gabriel: Scratch My Back

Illustration for article titled Peter Gabriel: Scratch My Back

The covers album often screams “midlife crisis,” but there’s reason to be optimistic about Peter Gabriel tackling younger musicians’ songs: Strains of his panoramic prog-pop run through everyone from Yeasayer to Vampire Weekend (whose “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” was already given the Gabriel treatment, courtesy of a collaboration with Hot Chip), so he seems primed for rediscovery by a new generation. And the payoff to Scratch My Back—a follow-up called I’ll Scratch Yours, on which featured bands like Bon Iver and Radiohead will return the favor by covering Gabriel tunes—promises to deliver that long-deserved lionization.

Yet in spite of its indie appeal, Scratch is too stately to stir practically anyone, let alone “the kids.” Over rhythm-free sweeps of strings and piano, Gabriel’s sublimely cask-aged voice ruminates in an enervating pattern of torch-song tremors and orchestral earthquakes—draping Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage” and Elbow’s “Mirror Ball” in bombastic melodrama, transforming The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book Of Love” and Lou Reed’s “The Power Of The Heart” into rom-com-ready schmaltz, and sucking the nihilistic fun out of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” The darkness occasionally illuminates: Stripping away the Afro-pop bounce of Paul Simon’s “The Boy In The Bubble” reveals its mournful postmodern alienation; Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind,” driven solely by needling violins, becomes a timely terrorism fever dream; and Regina Spektor’s “Apres Moi” doubles in theatrical grandeur. But too frequently (and in spite of Gabriel’s avowedly organic intentions), Scratch comes off like a ponderous exercise in re-branding—an uncomfortable place to be for one of pop’s great innovators.