That this Peter Gabriel covers record is actually coming out is a minor miracle. The collection was originally due out in 2010 as a counterpart to Scratch My Back, which had Gabriel covering songs by artists such as David Bowie, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Paul Simon. As envisioned, And I’ll Scratch Yours would have featured those same musicians covering Peter Gabriel songs. Naturally, things didn’t go quite as planned: Although a handful of these re-dos saw the light of day in 2010, the full album didn’t materialize until now, and several of the Scratch My Back cover-ees (notably Radiohead, Neil Young, and David Bowie) aren’t present.
Despite those absences, it’s hard to complain about an album that begins with David Byrne on a squealing electronic tangent (the downtown disco squelch “I Don’t Remember”) and ends with Paul Simon reimagining the poignant, political “Biko” with majestic acoustic guitar and strings. As covers albums go, And I’ll Scratch Yours is remarkably consistent; perhaps because the source material is so strong, even the weaker songs (Feist and Timber Timbre’s anemic take on “Don’t Give Up”; Bon Iver’s predictably wintry, banjo-laden “Come Talk To Me”) are just boring, not embarrassing.
On many songs, the record stays faithful to Gabriel’s original vision. That isn’t a bad thing—Elbow’s version of “Mercy Street” is haunting, while Arcade Fire’s creepy, synth-heavy version of “Games Without Frontiers” would fit right in on Reflektor, and Regina Spektor’s sympathetic take on the lonely “Blood Of Eden” preserves (and even amplifies) the song’s sadness over a broken relationship.
Still, And I’ll Scratch Yours is more intriguing when its artists put their own spins on Gabriel’s work: Randy Newman’s piano-heavy version of “Big Time” plays up the song’s sarcastic edge, while Brian Eno’s take on the deep cut “Mothers Of Violence” eschews the original’s piano for much more harrowing soundscapes, with warped vocals, sinister keyboards, and harsh sound effects. And Lou Reed’s resigned version of “Solsbury Hill”—which features plumes of distorted guitar drone and half-spoken, half-murmured lyrics—is transcendent in light of his death; in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, there’s an air of finality as he sings, “You can keep my things / They’ve come to take me home.”
In the end, the artists generally do masterful jobs exposing the power of Gabriel’s songwriting—their interpretations are all thoughtful and respectful. Covers albums are rarely essential—and this one isn’t perfect—but And I’ll Scratch Yours was certainly worth the wait.