Peter Gabriel is one for reciprocal agreements. The Sledgehammer swinger, remember, once suggested to a lover that they could have an airplane flying, if they would just bring their blue sky back. “All you do is call me,” he sang, “I’ll be anything you need.” His motivations seemed to be borne out of generosity, but he was getting something out of the deal, too – “open up your fruit cage,” indeed.
In that vein, Gabriel, art-rock conceptualist, had the notion a few years ago for a song-swapping, double-album experiment: He would record a song by someone like Neil Young or Lou Reed or Paul Simon or Arcade Fire; in return, he asked those songwriters to record one of his songs. The project was audacious, as songwriters traditionally don’t organize their own tribute albums. Gabriel was throwing his own 60th birthday party and strong-arming A-list invitees not only to show up, but to bring laudatory presents.
Gabriel did his part: In 2010 he released Scratch My Back, which featured orchestral arrangements of Young’s Philadelphia and David Bowie’s Heroes, among 10 other tracks. However, not all of the artists were quick to scratch Gabriel’s back in return. Young, Bowie and Radiohead declined to reciprocate, while others were slow to record their Gabriel songs. Some tracks have been released over the last three years, and now all of them are finally being released as And I’ll Scratch Yours. A few new artists (including Feist and Joseph Arthur) were brought on board as substitutes for the ones who went AWOL.
The covers album is an idiosyncratic genre – a product of marketing, celebration and interpretation, often less than cohesive, but almost always harmless. And I’ll Scratch Yours mostly works. Many of the participants (especially Gabriel’s peers) are playful with their arrangements, while others are more reverential. Gabriel hasn’t released an album of new material since 2002’s Up; this is newish Gabriel that is new enough.
The back-scratching begins with David Byrne’s version of I Don’t Remember. The former Talking Heads frontman employs harsh electro sounds and an off-kilter enthusiasm – amnesia (“I don’t remember anything at all”) is a welcome neurological condition when it comes to freshening up old songs.
Stephin Merritt keeps the eighties rigidness of Gabriel’s Not One of Us, but adds a fun and shout-y quality to a social protest on discrimination that is timelier than ever. The artful Joseph Arthur takes the beat out of Shock the Monkey and slathers it with a blur of guitars, literally monkeying with the Monkey (even though the song says not to do that).
Randy Newman tweaks the funk and keeps the sarcasm of Big Time. He sounds like Dr. John, and makes me wonder what Ray Charles would have done with the tune. Familiar songs done differently by authoritative voices – imaginations run wild, which should be the point with this kind of album.
In that regard, Arcade Fire fails with Games Without Frontiers. The original couples an ominous tenseness with an oblivious playground frolic; Arcade Fire doubles down on the former, loses the latter and doesn’t get too inventive.
On the other hand, we have Feist switching genders and gently taking Gabriel’s lines on the Don’t Give Up, with fellow Canadian Timber Timbre voicing Kate Bush’s part. He adds a sweet-but-slightly-scary effect, making this duet suitable for a romantic-zombie (rom-zom) soundtrack.
Paul Simon, playing against type on the coda-like finale, simplifies Biko as a strummed, Dylanish protest anthem. One track earlier, the late Lou Reed is flute-free, noisy and droning with Solsbury Hill. He cheekily changes “my friends would think I was a nut,” to “my friends would think I was a slut,” and disregards Gabriel’s bouncy majesty.
“Son, grab your things,” Reed half-sings, “I’ve come to take you home.” When a dead man sings something like that, the party is over. Reed walks out the door; Gabriel waves goodbye to a song that used to be his.