AND I’LL SCRATCH YOURS (RELEASED 23RD SEPTEMBER) IS THE RECIPROCAL PART OF A SONG SWAP PROJECT BEGUN BY PETER GABRIEL ON SCRATCH MY BACK.
That album’s assortment of ambitious but not entirely successful cover versions – including his take on songs by Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, The Magnetic Fields and Elbow – is now bundled together as a double edition with AND I’LL SCRATCH YOURS, coinciding with the single disc release of its multi-artist trawl through all 36 years of Gabriel’s much-admired solo back catalogue.
For logistical / scheduling reasons three of the artists whose songs featured on the 2010 album haven’t made it through to AND I’LL SCRATCH YOURS as performers – meaning the chances of ever hearing David Bowie taking on MORIBUND THE BURGERMEISTER and Neil Young bringing down SLEDGEHAMMER must now have passed. It scarcely matters. The absence of either is not especially keenly felt and in the case of Bowie he’s represented by proxy anyway – Gabriel covered “HEROES” which was co-written by Brian Eno, who does appear. The opportunity to hear what a fired-up Radiohead might have made in coalition with political assassination psycho-thriller FAMILY SNAPSHOT feels like one sorely missed, though.
BIKO, the ‘statement’ song here (from 1980’s PG3, and dealing with the murder of the South African anti-Apartheid activist while in police custody in 1977) is handled by Paul Simon. He’s not in GRACELAND mode so probably doesn’t do quite what might be expected with Gabriel’s nascent take on world music, turning it into a pleasant enough folk protest standard, but snuffing out much of the original’s searing flame to a barely smouldering resignation.
Lou Reed goes about the business of being Lou Reed – clearly taking great delight in going about the business of being Lou Reed – by erecting concrete skyscrapers even the mother of an architect would find it difficult to love all over the green spaces on SOLSBURY HILL (PG1, 1977), while Eno’s MOTHER OF VIOLENCE (PG2, 1978) is similarly unlikely ever to be filed under ‘family favourites’. Both are, of course, all the more entertaining for their wilful disrespect.
Elsewhere, David Byrne’s I DON’T REMEMBER (PG3) is wiry and sparks with confused nervous energy, Stephen Merritt’s NOT ONE OF US (also PG3) is a robotic electro-mantra, perfectly reflecting the subject matter, and Arcade Fire play about with GAMES WITHOUT FRONTIERS (again, PG3), coming up with a muddily entrenched version of the original.
Joseph Arthur savages SHOCK THE MONKEY (PG4, 1982), ripping out the tension of Gabriel’s version – efficient keyboard riff, pulsing bass and drum-machine chop – and throwing it into a swamp of primordial distortion. His take on this song about jealousy is filled with lurking anger and brooding self-destruction. It’s one of the finest moments here.
Justin Vernon’s floating vocals and determined banjo on COME TALK TO ME (US, 1992) lend Bon Iver’s version an uplifting air of impending resolution amidst the frustrated pleas of a communication breakdown. Further over the other side of that emotional impasse, the communion of Gabriel’s original BLOOD OF EDEN (also from US) dripped in painterly reds: fleshy, with high moisture content and soft edges. Here, Regina Spektor’s upright piano cuts right across the territory occupied by liquid bass and loose percussion on his version, making her take dryer, more straight lined, much whiter. It’s no less moving, though: Spektor sings it well, and hearing both parts of the vocal once delivered by Gabriel and Sinead O’Connor now inhabited entirely by the female perspective lends the song a new tenderness.
Not constrained by the “orchestra and vocals only” rule Gabriel imposed on himself as a device to achieve order across different songwriting styles on SCRATCH MY BACK, most involved with the project’s second half have cut loose and fashioned interesting, and occasionally startling, reinterpretations of his most well-known work. Oddly, despite the many voices and diversities in approach, AND I’LL SCRATCH YOURS ends up being by far the more coherent album.
Pre-order AND I’LL SCRATCH YOURS (or the double-disc edition also containing SCRATCH MY BACK) direct from Real World here.