When Peter Gabriel elected to investigate and interpret the work of his song writing brethren, the intention was never to simply record just another covers record. Too many people have gone down that easy route. After all, this is a man who rarely, if ever, toes the line, who refuses to step in the footprints already made by others.
Gabriel had something grander in mind – a song swap. The first part involved selecting a dozen songs from the back catalogues of some of the greatest songwriters of the modern era, reshaping and re-imagining them to create an homage to the art and craft of song writing. The second part aimed to distil the spirit of reciprocation, with all 12 songwriters offering up their own take on a favourite moment from the Gabriel songbook. It would be an exchange, a creative correspondence. Hence this two-legged project’s appropriately two-legged title: Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours.
He whittled down an initial long list of around 100 songs to a final round dozen, among them creations from the pens of Lou Reed, David Bowie, Radiohead, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, Randy Newman, Elbow, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. In order to get to the essence of each song, Gabriel – in the company of pianist Jason Rebello – stripped each song down to its bare bones. He then asked composer/arranger John Metcalfe (Durutti Column, Morrissey, Duke Quartet) to provide discreet orchestral settings that never overwhelmed the song itself, never casting the source material into shadow. “I asked John to keep the arrangements simple. Stark but always emotional, so that the songs could be really heard and felt.”
Scratch My Back originally saw light of day in 2010 and now finally we have And I’ll Scratch Yours. While this companion volume might have been delayed by the recording and touring schedules of those returning the favour, Gabriel is delighted with how many signed up for the project. Bearing in mind the A-list calibre of those whose songs he selected, it’s rather incredible that all but two songwriters chose to reciprocate. (For those two uncompleted swaps, Joseph Arthur and Feist willing entered the fray; their respective versions of Shock The Monkey and Don’t Give Up more than merely make up the numbers.)
The reciprocating artists opted for differing approaches to Gabriel’s songs. A few chose to radically reinterpret the original material, in the process leaving it barely recognisable – see here Lou Reed’s snarling Solsbury Hill or the frighteningly futuristic version of Mother Of Violence by Brian Eno, co-writer of David Bowie’s Heroes covered by Gabriel on Scratch My Back. Elsewhere, other contributors – like Arcade Fire (Games Without Frontiers) and Regina Spektor (Blood Of Eden) – paid their respects to the originals’ beauty without feeling the need to undertake complete overhauls.
Most participants knew exactly which song they would like to tackle. “It was kind of an easy decision,” explains Justin Vernon of his selection of Come Talk To Me. “There were a lot of songs of Peter’s that were important to me, but that one is definitely the most important. I’m not a religious guy at all, but if there was a religion, that song is it. It’s a searching song, a divine song. It was ‘I want to sing that song. I want to re-live that song.’”
As important to Joseph Arthur was Shock The Monkey. It was the first 45 he ever bought. “There was a period of my young life where it was the only song I had in my room. It takes me back into my childhood and deals abstractly – at least, to me – with how we evolve through pain.”
Arthur’s comments hone right in on the heart, the essence, the purpose of the project. Scratch My Back And I’ll Scratch Yours is a two-way celebration of both the songwriter’s art and the cover artist’s interpretation. Throughout these two dozen songs, we’re constantly reminded of just how versatile a well-constructed song can be – how it can shed its clothes and wear a new set of threads without losing its identity or its soul.
The sound might change, but the message remains clear. The song is everything.
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