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Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back

2010-02-22 07:48
Scratch My Back

But Gabriel was bored with playing the pop game. In 1989 he got into business, kick starting his own world music label, Real World. He developed his soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ into a Grammy Award winning Best New age album in 1990. Pop music took a back seat. His philanthropy flourished for the next two decades which saw him championing the WOMAD world music festival, pioneering digital distribution and co-founding non-profit human rights documentation and advocacy organisation WITNESS.

Cut to 2010 and sure, Peter Gabriel's got a fistful of Grammys for his soundtrack and video work, as well as Nobel Man of Peace and Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience awards. But the 60 year old singer has only released a pair of studio albums in the past twenty years. And he's also got a problem. He's feeling more than a bit bummed out by the contemporary economic meltdown, global warming, and ongoing wars on terror. His music needs to reach the masses. He needs to get his pop Mojo back.

He remembers that Johnny Cash saved his career by doing covers. He avoids the temptation to do a 'Rod Stewart revisits the greatest rock songs of all time' and revisits his own progressive art rock roots instead. He handpicks a selection of classic songs that speak to his fears about our pre-apocalyptic age of anxiety. The creative "cue card" comes. In an Idols era where cover versions have all but been reduced to karaoke clones he opts for rigorous artistic interpretation. He makes the call: he records the covers with minimal orchestral instruments to accompany his voice.

And it's his world-weary rasp that autopsies the yearning in David Bowie's "Heroes" with minimal string arrangements that cut to the core of its curious existential comforts. He removes the mbaqanga from Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" and transforms the breezy Afro pop jive into a sombre, slow-mo piano powered classical pop torch song haunt about the war on terror. It's uneasy listening. As are claustrophobic chamber popped reanimations of Elbow's "Mirrorball", Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage" and a violin-skinned cinematic re-imagination of Talking Heads' "Listening Wind" that perfectly fits the parable about a suicide bomber.

It's tempting to dismiss an equally spare reading of Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" as arty, pretentious or, even worse, simply an 'extreme makeover'. But to do so is to forget that Gabriel is no stranger to walking in the garden of dark pop delights. It's just been so damn long since "Solsbury Hill," "Shock the Monkey," "Biko" or "Games without Frontiers".

His deconstructed cover strategy may milk some of the suicidal sentiments simmering beneath Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and Neil Young's "Philadelphia", but they're always sincere celebrations of both influence and artistry. Sometimes Gabriel (wilfully?) misreads the original source material's nuances - Stephin Merritt's cynicism is completely absent on his rendition of the Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love". But as the impressionistic piano textures colouring Lou Reed's "The Power of the Heart" and nu-folkie Bon Iver's "Flume" show, these covers paint an enchanting portrait of the artist as an old man getting his Mojo back.

It's complicated when a musician loses touch with his 'pop' muse. Just ask Peter Gabriel. Back in 1986 the former Genesis front man was at the top of the pop pile. Thanks to high rotation on MTV his jukebox rocker "Sledgehammer" was a #1 hit on the Billboard pop charts.


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