A couple of years ago I slammed Patti Smith's covers album, Twelve, calling it "Karaoke Patti." I thought that she had done very little (barely even tried, in fact) to put her own stamp on the songs she was covering, and the songs she selected were so well known that they couldn't help but pale in comparison.
Peter Gabriel's new covers album, Scratch My Back, is also getting slammed in some quarters (most notably, Pitchfork), but I'd call it a success, because in most cases, Gabriel totally reimagines the songs, deconstructing them and recreating them in his own image. Now, whether you like what he's done with them is another matter entirely, and I can understand why some might have a distaste for the London Symphony Orchestra arrangements he surrounds the songs with.
A good example of the difference in approaches is with the album's first song, "Heroes." Whereas Smith probably would have faithfully recreated the original Bowie arrangement, Gabriel turns it into a song that you might not even recognize - much slower and methodical. But Gabriel's vocal carries the day, and the symphonic backing provides the drama. On Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble," Gabriel also slows the pace down, and in the process gives the song a whole new meaning - whereas on Graceland it was somewhat bubbly, here it is ominous, even dangerous.
I'm not familiar with Elbow's "Mirrorball," but I love Gabriel's version of the song. Also strong are his takes on Bon Iver's "Flume," Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today," and Neil Young's "Philadelphia." Interestingly, his cover of "The Book of Love" sounds lifeless in comparison to the version that played on the final episode of Scrubs a year ago, and he also sucks much of the power out of Talking Heads' "Listening Wind" and Arcade Fire's "My Body Is A Cage."
So it isn't a perfect album, by any stretch of the imagination. But it is a brave and worthy one.