Peter Gabriel fails to scratch my itch
For most of my life, PG has been one of my artistic heroes. His early solo work and the earliest years of Genesis shaped much of my musical aesthetic, both as an artist and a listener. I have appreciated and enjoyed every phase his career has gone through, from bold avant-rock to pure pop to world music and into fusion of all those styles. I have enjoyed it all.
Gabriel's latest album, Scratch My Back is one half of an ambitious project: he would release an album of covers, then release an album of the bands he's covered covering him. I enjoy tribute cover albums of all kinds, Shared Vision (Beatles), Two Rooms (Elton John), Tales from Yesterday (Yes), Supper's Ready (Genesis), Strong Hand of Love (Mark Heard), and Different for Girls (Joe Jackson, by all female artists) all have strong places in my iPod playlists. So I'm looking forward to And You Scratch Mine.
But that's just the problem with new Gabriel: looking forward to it. It seems like Peter Gabriel always has a new project percolating, then about to come out, then behind schedule, then years behind schedule. His last album, Up, justified the delay by being the single most impactful moment in his career since (and possibly even eclipsing) 1982's Security. The problem was that it had been ten freaking years since his last album, the hot-and-cold Us.
With Scratch My Back, the delay was only (only!) eight years. Would that the wait had been worth it. The idea of Gabriel covering Bowie, Paul Simon, and Radiohead is interesting as hell, even if the entire rest of the album is a bunch of songs I've never heard of by artists I don't give a crap about. The problem is twofold: 1) the songs are all dismal and depressing as hell, even songs that were originally uptempo, and 2) the instrumentation is all piano and orchestra. No guitars, no synth, no bass, no drums. Look back at those last two omissions. No Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick, and no Manu Katche, no Jerry Marotta, no drummers of Ekome, no massive thrumming rhythm. In other words, this is a Peter Gabriel album missing the two things most endemic to Peter Gabriel's music: his innovative songwriting and his unparalleled sense of rhythm.
Of course, for an album of covers you don't expect Gabriel's songwriting, but his sense of arrangement should be front and center here. I want to hear "Heroes" played by Peter Gabriel's band, not by some nameless orchestra with a rhythmless and fairly soulless arrangement. Joe Jackson did "Heroes" when I saw him in 2001 and I can still hear the arrangement in my head. I just listened to Gabriel's version 20 minutes ago and I already can't remember it.
Gabriel's albums hold my attention as few artists' do. Songs I've heard hundreds of time still keep me rapt, and I continue to notice new aspects of the arrangement and production. I can't believe I'm saying this about Peter Gabriel, but I just don't care about any of the music on this album as I'm listening to it. The sole exception is "Book of Love," which was released on a movie soundtrack a few years ago. That's a lovely one-off of PG with an orchestra, a charming and stirring little piece of intimacy. The rest is just string washes and bland horns obscuring a bunch of songs I didn't know in the first place. For the first time in his career, Peter Gabriel has had a big musical idea that turned out to be a bad one.
The biggest frustration of it all is that when Up came out in 2002 PG told interviewers that the ten years it had taken to create that album had resulted in so much music that he planned to release a follow-up album just two years later. Where is that elusive disc, for which I have been waiting since 2004? It's got to be better than Scratch My Back. At least I have to assume that it would sound like a Peter Gabriel album.