New York Times MARCH 1, 2010 - by Jon Pareles


For many singer-songwriters there comes a time to make an album of other people's songs. That's what Peter Gabriel does with Scratch My Back, which is being released on Tuesday in the United States. It's his first solo studio album in eight years in a multitasking career: technology projects, musical collaborations, humanitarian initiatives, parenthood.

"There's a Slow Food movement," he said in an interview during a New York City stopover. "I think I'm part of the Slow Music movement."

A covers album can be a tribute or a miscellany, a throwaway or a statement about what a songwriter holds dear. The production can imitate the original arrangements, the way Seal and Rod Stewart did on their recent soul collections, or apply a distinctly personal approach, as Rosanne Cash did on The List. Meanwhile, in recording company offices, hopes arise that a familiar voice and a familiar song can add up to radio play.

Mr. Gabriel's voice is the most recognisable aspect of the new album. It's the ancient-mariner baritone that lent gravity to the early Genesis, to Mr. Gabriel's 1970s and '80s hits like Solsbury Hill and Sledgehammer, and to Down To Earth, the Oscar-nominated song he wrote with Thomas Newman for the soundtrack of Wall-E in 2008. But on Scratch My Back Mr. Gabriel has placed his voice in a new wilderness.

The material is by rock songwriters, including Mr. Gabriel's fellow arena veterans like Neil Young, Radiohead and David Bowie, along with indie-rockers like the Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. (Its most recent songs are both from 2008: Flume by Bon Iver and The Power Of the Heart by Lou Reed.) But the songs don't rock: mostly they hover. Only one song, Randy Newman's despondent I Think It's Going To Rain Today, resembles the original. Mr. Gabriel's other cover versions are slow, moody and wilful, backed by orchestra and chamber ensembles.

"I was trying to make a grown-up record," said Mr. Gabriel, sixty. He was sipping tea and sampling a plate of berries in the lounge of the Mercer Hotel in SoHo. "This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I've courted the lowest common denominator before, but there's a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn't present on this record."

Many of the arrangements are eerie and astringent, and the mood, even in love songs, is desolate. "Happy music that is genuinely joyful is probably the hardest music to write," Mr. Gabriel said. "I think miserable stuff is more natural to the human condition and maybe more cathartic."

Covers albums don't get any more idiosyncratic or high concept than Scratch My Back. Mr. Gabriel self-consciously set himself limits and conditions because, he said, he finds obstacles more helpful than complete freedom. "I'm better trying to get around something than building something," he said.

He chose the material in a kind of social-networking experiment. Scratch My Back got its title because when Mr. Gabriel picked a song, he also asked the songwriter to record a Gabriel song in turn. The original plan was to release two albums in tandem. The songwriters agreed - except for David Bowie, whose collaborator on "Heroes", Brian Eno, will participate - but the deadlines came and went... "We may not get everybody, but I hope we will."

Instead, every full moon Mr. Gabriel plans to release a two-song digital download on iTunes. The series started in January with his version of The Book Of Love by The Magnetic Fields paired with The Magnetic Fields performing Not One Of Us. Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields' songwriter, said he chose that as "the one where I felt most comfortable doing my evil-dwarf chorus." The second matches Mr. Gabriel's Boy In The Bubble with Mr. Simon's take on Biko.

Mr. Gabriel recorded The Book Of Love years ago, when he had some spare studio time with a string section. It appeared on the soundtrack to the 2004 Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez movie Shall We Dance?, and it caught on as a wedding song (for Eva Longoria Parker among others). The TV series Scrubs used it for its 2009 finale, and millions of people have viewed YouTube videos with the track.

"At first I thought, 'How hilarious, he's got a completely different take on the song,'" Mr. Merritt said by telephone from Seattle. "But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn't have to be a humorist."

The Arcade Fire has been working on Mr. Gabriel's Games Without Frontiers. while Regina Spektor is still choosing her Gabriel song. Scratch My Back includes the Arcade Fire's My Body Is A Cage and Ms. Spektor's Après Moi. In a telephone interview Ms. Spektor said: "It's cool not to hear the song in my voice. The leash has been let go from my voice, and now it doesn't just belong to me."

When he eventually decided to make a full album of covers, Mr. Gabriel ruled out drums and guitars. He went on to renounce the funk, soul and world-music elements that have filled his past albums. He was determined to strip the songs down to the bare melody and lyric.

He also inverted his usual recording process. Instead of writing and arranging songs before completing the vocals, for Scratch My Back the vocals came first, recorded on sparsely accompanied demos. The performances are slow and somber, dropping to a whisper or building to a breaking ululation. Mr. Gabriel's voice sounds desperate and exposed, clinging to the melody like a life raft. "As you get older, some top notes drop off and bottom notes appear, which I quite like," Mr. Gabriel said. "You listen to Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash, and you see the advantage of the lower end."

Mr. Gabriel entrusted the vocal tracks to the arranger John Metcalfe, a violist, composer and former member of a post-punk band, the Durutti Column. Mr. Gabriel and Mr. Metcalfe shared a taste for Stravinsky, the mystical Minimalist Arvo Pärt and American Minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, along with the British composers Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

Mr. Metcalfe listened to the vocal tracks alone and built the arrangements around them. Sometimes he was familiar with the original versions; sometimes he wasn't. Regardless, he was determined to transform them.

"If you're going to reinterpret something, then really do something," he said by telephone from London. "Nail your colors to the mast and say, 'This is different, and it isn't everybody's cup of tea.'"

Mr. Gabriel egged on his arranger. "The more out there it was, the more he enthused," Mr. Metcalfe said.

Mr. Gabriel has planned concerts with an orchestra in Europe and North America, including shows at Radio City Music Hall on May 2 and 3. Along with the cover songs Mr. Metcalfe said he is reworking Mr. Gabriel's older songs with "no drums, no guitars."

Mr. Gabriel said: "I'm often guilty of overcooking and too much arrangement and throwing too much at it. But I think as I get older, I'm learning better when to be empty and when to be full."