Last decade, art rock maestro Peter Gabriel planned an unconventional pair of discs: On one, he would cover songs by musicians young and old; on the other, that same set of musicians would cover him. These were planned to be released simultaneously, but the first album by Gabriel, Scratch My Back, was issued on its own in 2010, and after numerous delays, some caused by players dropping from the project and others taking their places, And I’ll Scratch Yours finally touches down four years later.
It features contributions from most of the musicians Gabriel covered — Paul Simon, Elbow, Bon Iver, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, Randy Newman and Regina Spektor, but omits appearances that never materialized from David Bowie, Neil Young and Radiohead. Instead, it substitutes cuts from Joseph Arthur, Feist and Brian Eno, the latter of whom co-wrote and produced the Talking Heads and Bowie songs Gabriel covered.
One could argue that Arthur and Feist aren’t in the same league as Young and Radiohead, or that Eno isn’t the singer that Bowie is, but all three acquit themselves here. Arthur omits the poppy elements that helped make “Shock the Monkey” Gabriel’s first US Top 40 hit, and replaces its hooks and drums with distorted guitar and an anguished vocal that suggests literal trauma. Feist teams with her fellow folky Canadians in Timber Timbre on the Gabriel/Kate Bush vehicle “Don’t Give Up,” which now reverses gender roles: Here it’s the woman, Feist, who despairs, and Timber Timbre’s Taylor Kirk who offers reassurance. Gabriel’s own “Mother of Violence” is an uncharacteristically restrained piano ballad that sharply contrasts with its lyric about how fear begets terror, but Eno goes for a far more visceral treatment jammed with atonal studio tricks for a panicked, claustrophobic effect.
Whereas Gabriel’s Scratch My Back was somberly symphonic and very much of a piece, And I’ll Scratch Yours is far more eclectic. David Byrne’s “I Don’t Remember” features contemporary electronics, but is playfully Talking Heads-like, as if a complete lack of memory would render one blankly jolly. Arcade Fire’s “Games Without Frontiers” is cut from the same cloth of post-punk dub as its recent Reflektor, while Merritt’s “Not One of Us” apes the staccato synths of early Depeche Mode and Yaz. Randy Newman’s “Big Time” broadens the original’s Reagan-era satire to the point that it sounds like one of his own.
Leave it to Lou Reed to be the most irreverent: His rendition of “Solsbury Hill,” otherwise one of Gabriel’s gentlest and most accessible songs, is here turned into a Velvet Underground-ian nightmare. While his feral guitars drone and drone, Reed runs roughshod over the melody, missing notes, changing the original’s unconventional 7/4 meter to a standard 4/4, slurring lyrics and, at one point, even changing them: “My friends would think I was a slut,” he spits,” as if he’d himself written the 1977 song for ’72′s Transformer. These changes initially grate, but what at first seems graceless soon establishes its own stateliness: Listen closely and those same guitars will sing as if they were violins.