Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Orchestral Manouevres In the Dark

Peter Gabriel - Scratch My Back (Realworld)

For those who have us who have been waiting for ‘I/O’, the new album of original material Peter Gabriel has been promising for the past eight years, his ‘song exchange’ project ‘Scratch My Back’ is somewhat unexpected. For some, it will no doubt also be frustrating. It is now conventional for the covers album to be seen as a disappointment, a sign of diminishing creative powers or an abrogation of artistic responsibilities. This is something that always irritates me given the importance of the art of interpretation in the development of popular music.

In Peter Gabriel’s case, there’s a strong argument to be made that ‘Scratch My Back’ is the most radical move he could have made. Although his previous two albums ‘Us’ and ‘Up’ came spaced far apart, they gave a strong sense of consistent artistic preoccupations. Gabriel was fascinated by sound, by linear song structure and by a wide variety of music from around the world. He had developed a perfectionist streak in his own private studio and would rework his compositions for as long as he felt it necessary to tinker and tweak. He was also becoming strongly associated with personal, confessional lyrics, which added a human dimension to what could easily have been made for alienating listening. Both albums are brilliant and original – but I wonder what more of the same would have added to our understanding of this most underrated of artists.

Given the extent to which Gabriel’s sound is associated with his regular rhythm section (not least bassist Tony Levin and his customised ‘funk fingers’), recording an album without drums, guitar or electric bass and with an orchestra represents a substantial departure. For the most part, the orchestrations on ‘Scratch My Back’, by John Metcalfe, are not particularly adventurous, although sometimes stirring, sitting squarely in film soundtrack territory. It therefore falls more to Gabriel’s strengths and limitations as a singer to determine which of these musical settings work and which do not. His voice has not sounded this exposed since ‘Here Comes the Flood’ on his debut solo recording. Sometimes the results are grandiose or schmaltzy, but on other occasions, Gabriel finds a restrained and dignified sense of reflection and regret in his material.

Although its title suggests there is something lighthearted, entertaining, perhaps even humorous about this project, but the album that Gabriel has produced is unflinchingly earnest and sincere. Whilst he alters the mood of many of these songs, he also treats them with tremendous reverence. His aim seems to have been to strip these songs of the trappings of their original productions and amplify the emotions beneath the artifice. This is a bit difficult to achieve with a selection such as Neil Young’s wonderful ‘Philadelphia’, which was all about naked simplicity and vulnerability in the first place, the song demonstrating considerably more artistry than the film it soundtracked. Gabriel speeds up the temp slightly and makes the phrasing more precise, meaning that there’s less lilt and gentle swing. The orchestrations eventually drown both the melody and the purpose of the song. Similarly, it’s hard to add additional dense arrangements to Arcade Fire’s ‘My Body Is a Cage’, hardly a song that could have been much more portentous in its original guise. Somehow Gabriel succeeds in making it so however, although he finds something more intimate and restrained in the song’s coda.

There are moments, however, when his approach works to startling and transformative effect. With Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, he alters the phrasing of the vocal in the opposite way from ‘Philadelphia’, protracting the lines and finding the song’s inherent sadness and claustrophobia. His voice is cracked and wayward here. He’s by no means the most technically gifted of singers, but his voice has rarely been used so compellingly as an instrument before. Regina Spektor’s ‘Apres Moi’ sounds enticing when stripped of her indulgent kookiness, whilst Elbow’s ‘Mirrorball’ sounds a good deal more mysterious and elegant when divorced from Guy Garvey’s homely blokiness. It’s one of the more slippery and elusive songs here, and Gabriel handles its subtleties adroitly.

Best of all surely must be the lush, captivating take on Bon Iver’s ‘Flume’. This somehow retains all the passion and the emotion of the original, adding theatricality and drama but removing Justin Vernon’s trademark vocal trickery. It helps that this results in a clearer communication of the lyric. Gabriel completely inhabits this song, sounding at once powerful and mournful. This is a tremendous reading of an already excellent song.

Elsewhere, the situation is more complicated than merely a matter of straightforward success of failure. Removing the joyful township spirit of Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ radically alters its mood and feeling, although I can’t help feeling that this slow motion version is a little too soporific. The success of the version of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love’ depends on whether or not Stephin Merritt’s songs work when his layers of irony are peeled away. Some will find this conversational take sweet and endearing, others may feel it is sentimental. The piano-lead take on Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ is arguably too faithful and certainly pales into insignificance when placed against Nina Simone’s magisterial version. Uncharacteristically, Gabriel overdoes the forced emoting at the outset of his version of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, but the song magically comes alive with the introduction of a Steve Reich-esque string figure. This in turn allows Gabriel’s voice to take full, natural flight.

By some distance the most surprising setting is a de-funked, chamber take on Talking Heads’ alarmingly prophetic ‘Listening Wind’. It’s the one that seems least likely to work given how much Talking Heads songs tended to rely on their spindly, angular grooves. Gabriel’s reading emphasises the importance of David Byrne’s vocal phrasing, and his ear for an engaging melody.

‘Scratch My Back’ is by no means a masterpiece, but it is an important addition to the catalogue of a major artist. Bob Ezrin, far better known as a fairly blustery rock producer, but who of course worked wonders on Lou Reed's 'Berlin', has captured the orchestral sound effortlessly, although I would have preferred it had the orchestrations focussed more on texture and colour and less on cinematic sweep. Nevertheless, Gabriel has pushed himself outside his usual comfort zone. The results are mixed, but never less than interesting.