Album Review

Gabriel puts creative stamp on covers

(Nadav Kander)
March 1, 2010

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Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back
Real World
ESSENTIAL “Mirrorball’’

The covers album can strike dread into the hearts of fans of veteran artists. It can feel like the ultimate creative surrender. Nothing in the tank? Let’s do a few favorites. It’s unknown where Peter Gabriel is at in terms of his own songwriting - his last pop album of original material came out in 2002 - but this intriguing covers project is no white flag. Nor is it a cocktail-lounge breeze-through of standards or classic-rock songs. For starters, even though some of the artists he covers are famous, not all of the songs are. Gabriel branches out to musicians young and old, including Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, and Bon Iver. But even among the exceptions - including David Bowie’s “Heroes’’ and Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble’’ - Gabriel so radically alters the mood, arrangement, and instrumentation that the songs take on new life. He eschews guitar and drums and goes orchestral. His voice, still a dynamic instrument that can leap from meek to menacing, is very much out front, prowling over spare, sometimes lugubrious reworkings. At the album’s best, the results are head-spinning. His take on Elbow’s “Mirrorball’’ is deliriously lightheaded with unabashedly joyful singing over majestic and dizzying string figures. At its worst, a few songs feel plodding and insular. “The Boy in the Bubble,’’ for instance, goes so far into the slow lane that it strips away what made the original wordplay so rhythmically intoxicating. Whatever Gabriel does it’s never less than interesting, proving his arty inner conceptualist lives. This release will be followed shortly by the 12 artists represented here contributing to an all-Gabriel covers project called “I’ll Scratch Yours.’’ (Out tomorrow) -- SARAH RODMAN