It seemed like a perfectly good, if idiosyncratic, idea at the time. Back in 2010, Peter Gabriel did an album called Scratch My Back which consisted of cover songs of A-list artists. The idea was that those artists would return the favor and cover Gabriel’s own material on an album called And I’ll Scratch Yours.
The problem was that the prospect of getting a dozen artists to churn out their own Gabriel homages in their spare time turned out to be a little more complicated than originally intended. Four years after Peter’s original salvo, And I’ll Scratch Yours is finally available in America, minus three of the biggest names (David Bowie, Neil Young, and Radiohead) who were supposed to participate.
Their replacements (Joseph Arthur, Brian Eno, and Feist featuring Timber Timbre) deliver well-intentioned cuts that don’t live up to the originals. Arthur deserves some credit for at least trying something different with an immensely popular track, removing the groove from “Shock The Monkey” and turning it into a drawn-out, anguished cry that throws the lyrics into strange relief.
To be fair, not all of the returning artists are quite up to the task of matching Gabriel’s peerless original versions either. The anthemic strains of “Games Without Frontiers” would seem to be right in Arcade Fire’s wheelhouse, yet their take is too faithful and tame. Stephen Merritt of Magnetic Fields does his ironic keyboard thing, but it turns “Not One Of Us” cloying. Luckily, Bon Iver does indie-rock royalty proud with a banjo-driven “Come Talk To Me” that makes great use of Justin Vernon’s haunting falsetto.
Even though its origins are a bit unique, And I’ll Scratch Yours is still your garden-variety tribute album, subject to all of the perks and limitations that such projects tend to contain. Any sort of flow and consistency is impossible to maintain with artists so diverse all going their separate ways in their interpretations, so the best that a listener can hope is that the high points are playlist-worthy.
In that respect, And I’ll Scratch Yours gets the job done, thanks to a trio of veterans who bring their A-games. Randy Newman sinks his teeth into the sarcasm of “Big Time” with hilariously potent results. Paul Simon finds the bruised folk song at the heart of “Biko,” revealing the lovely melody that was somewhat hidden in the intense original take.
Best of all is Lou Reed’s performance of “Solsbury Hill.” Gabriel’s recording of it was an elegant declaration of independence; Reed, in one of his final performances, brings in raw guitars and his brilliant vocal phrasing to create something entirely unique without losing touch with the original meaning. And I’ll Scratch Yours took a while to get here, but, in the finest songs on this disc at least, reciprocation turns out to be the sincerest form of flattery.