Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010 | 2:45 p.m.
Back when he was trumpeting his post-Genesis solo career with four albums in the first six years, who could have ever guessed Peter Gabriel would go this silent? Yet he waited six years to follow up 1986 blockbuster So with the so-so Us, then went a full decade before reemerging with 2002’s sub-par Up. And now, eight years later, he’s back again. Sort of.
It’s a strange thing for a songwriter so missing from the modern scene to put out a record comprised solely of cover tunes. Even stranger? Gabriel’s selections for Scratch My Back look shamefully predictable—if not the titles themselves, then certainly the artists behind them, split evenly between classic-rock contemporaries (David Bowie, Lou Reed, Neil Young) and obvious, Pitchfork-approved current acts (Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Regina Spektor).
Ultimately, though, it’s Gabriel’s musical approach that sinks this project. At age 60, his voice still resonates with the purposefulness that once made “Here Comes the Flood” and “Biko” so epic. But here, he uses it to single-minded effect, treating each of Scratch’s 12 cuts the exact same way: slow, solemn, minimally orchestral, half-spoken. Parsed individually, his take on Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”—its bouncy spirit replaced by utter gravitas—might stir the senses. And, with so much focus on the lyrics, the words to that song, and others, expand in meaning. But that’s hardly enough to make the funereal barrage of indistinguishable earnestness any less intimidating.
Who could have ever guessed Peter Gabriel would go this silent? Or that when he finally spoke up again, we’d feel an urge to tune him out?