In the history of Peter Gabriel’s solo career there are glittering moments of genius and other times where the ideas fell short of success or backfired.
The Womad festival of ’82, the ‘Realworld’ theme park and the development of world music through Real World have either struggled or remained unfinished.
This is probably the truth for any artist who pushes the boundaries and tries to innovate. So with a couple of albums of cover versions, first by Gabriel himself and then by celebrated international artists, singing essentially the greatest hits on both sides, this should be a moment of playing safe. The last three years from 2010’s ‘Scratch My Back’ and the release of ‘And I’ll Scratch Yours’’ (2013) have been far from straight forward and the latest release has proved that Gabriel has once again bitten off more than he could chew.
It was likely the latest release was always going to be a tough call. Gabriel’s first solo release for eight years (‘Scratch’) was a series of reinvented versions of songs by Bowie, Neil Young and Radiohead. However innovation appeared to give way to deconstruction and the results seemed to alienate a number of the participating artists. Radiohead’s reaction in particular to the minimalist, almost spoken word version of ‘Street Spirit’ was predictable. Overall it was deemed by many of Radiohead’s fans to be one of the worst pieces of music anywhere, with Shatner like comparisons. The band declined to follow up with ‘Wallflower’ on the return to new album and this was the view of Bowie, Young, and Ray Davies in regard to return participation.
The impact to the project was worsened by the slow response from bands such as Arcane Fire who remained on-board for the follow up. To lessen the delay, some of the tracks have been released via iTunes during the three year gap between albums and so this new release actually represents only half an album of new material.
With Gabriel now reliant on the artists to interpret the songs rather than his own bleak, stripped back formula there was hope that ‘And I’ll scratch yours’ would be more accessible and enjoyable. However there are areas where the production has been managed to the point where expression and looseness are lost to an inflexible rigidity. In effect Gabriel is not allowing his own back to be scratched.
David Byrne’s opening track, ‘I don’t remember’ is a difficult proposition to begin with. His overtly high vocal sounds Scissor sister like, with no real heart or commitment in the tone, even when it settles to a lower key for the chorus.
The lack of spark from the artists concerned seems to continue throughout the rest of the album, with some input feeling almost unwilling, rather like it it’s going through the motions. Bon Iver’s cover of ‘Come talk to me’ has a similar lack of drive to it and loses the focus of the song in the progress.
‘Shock the monkey’ comes at you like a slow distorted dirge, barely half the speed of the original. The effect of the slow pace is the loss of the quirky spirit of the original.
The pattern continues throughout, Arcade Fire seem to miss the potency of ‘Games without frontiers’ with a faithful but ultimately fainthearted showing.
It’s probably the Feist cover of ‘Don’t give up’ that shows us how empty the covers appear on this album. Drafted in as a ‘replacement’ band for the sequel, they deliver a bland version of the original that strips away all the emotional charge that made the 1986 version so powerful. An attempt at an interesting take on the Gabriel/Bush duet sees Feist, feat Timber Timbre using a reversal of roles. However the delicate vocal of Bush that offers tenderness and hope is eradicated in a performance which is a low, almost monophonic response in tone by Timber Timbre. It’s not a convincing reply to the desperation felt by Gabriel in the original, and hard to see how this would inspire anyone to keep going.
In fairness there are moments that shine briefly on the album, Randy Newman’s, ‘Big Time’ has a great delivery to it as does the cover of ‘Solsbury Hill’ by Lou Reed. The Reed version is a paradox in it alienates in a positive way. Destroying the sweetness of the original, the typical Reed trademark voice sits on top of a slow, distorted guitar that results in a grimy, low grade alternative that works. The track is bound to polarise opinion with many people unable to accept the style.
Overall it’s hard to believe that Gabriel’s ambitions for this record have been met. Describing the process of pulling the bands together for the project as similar to “Herding cats” this has been a tough process that feels laboured and clunky. His own covers on the first outing did not do him any favours when it came to completion and the lack of mutual interpretation on the albums has led to dissolved partnerships which were not filled adequately. The ideology behind the projects was sound and could have resulted in some excellent covers had things been managed better.
It does needs to be approached with open eyes as you might expect and if you felt alarm at the extent of variation in the recent Steve Hackett release -‘Genesis Revisited 2’ then you will no doubt feel a resentment to the handling of classic material on this outing. What many fans would hope for after this album is for Gabriel to return to the studio and produce a solo effort that matches the heights of the late 70’s and early 80’s, rather than a 90’s style experiment.
1. “I Don’t Remember” David Byrne 3:38
2. “Come Talk to Me” Bon Iver 6:20
3. “Blood of Eden” Regina Spektor 4:39
4. “Not One of Us” Stephin Merritt 3:49
5. “Shock the Monkey” Joseph Arthur 5:49
6. “Big Time” Randy Newman 3:29
7. “Games Without Frontiers” Arcade Fire 3:22
8. “Mercy Street” Peter Gabriel feat. Elbow 5:28
9. “Mother of Violence” Brian Eno 3:00
10. “Don’t Give Up” Feist feat. Timber Timbre 5:28
11. “Solsbury Hill” Lou Reed 5:24
12. “Biko” Paul Simon 4:19