I have developed a reputation as someone who hedges his bets when it comes to criticism, and Peter Gabriel’s first full album in a very long while (since 2002’s Up, in fact) is no different. In fact, it will read like the script from the latest miracle drug commercial: Do not listen to Scratch My Back while driving, as side effects include sleepiness. Do not take if you have been diagnosed with, or are prone to, feelings of depression. If symptoms persist, contact your doctor or at least change the CD.
The new collection is very beautiful, in fact. It finds Gabriel reinterpreting songs from artists as diverse as Paul Simon, the Arcade Fire, David Bowie, the Magnetic Fields and Radiohead, and does so strictly with orchestral accompaniment. The goal is to spotlight the lyrics, and Gabriel does so remarkably well. The only problem is almost every song arrives dour, funereal, often the exact reverse of what you would expect from Gabriel’s typically rhythm-centric world music ethos. A prime example is Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” which becomes a polar opposite of the original, devoid of that strong pseudo-zydeco beat, and the key line, “These are the days of miracles and wonders,” becomes damn near sarcastic in the translation.
Even so, it’s still a well-crafted release, and shows a great deal of respect for the original performers even though the performances are drastically altered. The best way I can express why I’m so ambivalent about this album is that I love the “Here Comes the Flood” redux that appeared on his Shaking the Tree hits collection, but Scratch My Back, on the surface, smacks of being that sound repeated again and again. In the hands of someone less talented it would be irreconcilable, but in Gabriel’s you get a disc’s worth of meticulous, and sometimes disturbing, lullabies. I’d recommend it to only Gabriel fans and the most open-minded of listeners. The rest of you should take the doctor’s advice: Do not listen while operating heavy machinery.
Scratch My Back is available from Amazon.com.