Are you more loyal to a particular song, or to the artist who sings it? Does one artist “own” a song, is it destroyed when someone else sings it? Or can a different interpretation make it better – maybe worse – or just ‘different.’
That’s the question put forth by Peter Gabriel’s pair of albums, Scratch My Back (which was originally released in 2010) and And I’ll Scratch Yours, the just-released companion. In the first release, Gabriel sings the songs of other artists, putting an often-times melancholy spin on popular songs. In the second release, other artists sing songs Gabriel made popular.
I must say, while I have several collections of a single song done by many artists (I have at least five different major artists singing the Mama’s & the Papa’s California Dreaming, and I love all of them), I’m of the artist-loyal group. Sometimes an artist can really rock a song (can you really say who sings Proud Mary better – Tina Turner or Creedence Clearwater?), other times they destroy it so painfully you want to cry (Willie Nelson, I love you, but please, for the love of Arlo, don’t – just don’t – sing City of New Orleans ever again). Yet, on the two albums combined, there was only one song I did not care for.
Do not expect this to be an album you will get up and dance to, unless it’s a slow, hypnotic pas de deux. Gabriel’s songs are backed up by full orchestration, with chirping violins beautiful in tone, making the album slide back and forth between the sounds of symphonic Pink Floyd and soft Dire Straits a la Brothers in Arms. The songs are slow, aching, haunting, jazzy, and gorgeous, as if Gabriel had stopped by, started playing around with your piano, and tapped out some random torch songs from the top of his head, and you caught them on tape. No shocking monkeys here. While I still prefer Springsteen, Philadelphia would seem to have been written for this album, this style, and this singer.
In the second half, And You Scratch Mine, the songs are a bit more upbeat, but still in that somewhat aching, torch-lounge style, while each artist still twists the songs to fit themselves. Arcade Fire’s Games Without Frontiers remains strong, if not particularly inventive. Randy Newman leaves his mark on Big Time, so much that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it. Paul Simon cannot be anything but mellifluous on Biko. The only song I did not care for was Lou Reed singing Solsbury Hill. I’m all for twisting things up, but it’s a light, sweet bouncy melody; Reed seems to unroll the song, pound it flat, and leave it wounded in the gutter. I tried twice, but could not finish listening to the end of it. If you really like Reed’s style, you may love it, but to me it was a bad fit.
This was planned and released as a concept album pair; it is a type of experiment, and in all experiments, some things will hit the mark and some won’t. Is it the song that propels a singer to fame, or does a singer pull a particular song into the history books? Would we love Stairway to Heaven as much if it were sung by Britney Spears? Would we even remember Love Me Tender if it were sung by anyone but Elvis? What would The Scream look like if it had been painted by Rembrandt? That’s the question to ponder as you explore this fascinating piece of musical concept art.