The covers album as we know it dates back to 1973, when David Bowie's Pin Ups and Bryan Ferry's These Foolish Things were released.
Bowie's and Ferry's albums were affectionate celebrations of the pop and R&B of an earlier, more melodically potent era, and delivered as such: Ferry even managed to replace the dogged fatalism of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" with something approaching ebullient expectation.
It's interesting to contrast that celebratory approach with the dominant mood underpinning Peter Gabriel's covers album, Scratch My Back, on which his decision to dispense with rock backings in favour of orchestrations imposes a powerful melancholy.
In the case of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and Neil Young's "Philadelphia", the sadness was always at the core of the material. But it's an entirely different matter when, for instance, Bowie's "Heroes" is effectively turned into an elegy, Gabriel's vulnerable voice supported by tentative strings which gradually acquire strength, sawing away furiously in minimalist manner, to carry his performance to its climactic epiphany. It seems bogus and misplaced, as does the attempt to lend exultancy to a similarly restrained version of Elbow's "Mirrorball" by the imposition of industrious brass and strings.
In places, though, Gabriel's approach pays dividends by casting new, unexpected light on familiar material. The charming piano and brass arrangement brings a bruised nobility to Bon Iver's "Flume", while the interlacing violin lines applied to Talking Heads' "Listening Wind" deftly evoke the refracted sensibility of a newly politicised terrorist summoning the strength to act. It's one of the most haunting pieces here, along with a version of Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" on which the original's mbaqanga bounce is abandoned for a more solemn, reflective piano treatment that brings the line about "the way the camera follows us in slo-mo" eerily to life.
Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage" is hemmed in with brooding, claustrophobic brass and woodwind, while Stephin Merritt's characteristic dry, sceptical tone is entirely washed out of a version of the Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love", leaving a purer, simpler expression of affection. Something similar happens to Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", but in that case the song all but dissolves away completely. As perhaps it should. Overall, it's a fascinating exercise in musical refurbishment, one whose dominant moods of resignation, anxiety and melancholy reflect the uneasy tenor of the times as much as they do Peter Gabriel's own character.
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