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Scratch My Back

Peter Gabriel

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iTunes Editors’ Notes

As always, even Peter Gabriel’s album of covers is conceptual. This isn’t just a collection of 12 covers, six from established veterans (David Bowie, Randy Newman, Neil Young) and six from newer artists (Radiohead, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, etc.), but there’s to be a companion piece entitled I’ll Scratch Yours that features those artists covering Peter Gabriel songs. Gabriel slows everything down to a muted trickle. Paul Simon’s “The Boy In the Bubble” has its buoyant bounce removed leaving just piano and strings. David Bowie’s “Heroes” crawls with its sense of glam replaced by an end- of-the-world-solemnity. Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” comes close to the original recording, but that’s about it. Bon Iver’s “Flume,” Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love,” Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage” sound more like modern classical pieces with orchestral arrangements filling the soundstage. It’s a brilliant, somber move by a man known for his great theatrics. The “Special Edition” features three remixes and a cover of Ray Davies and the Kinks’ classic “Waterloo Sunset” given the Gabriel twist.

Customer Reviews

Brilliant and odd

An orchestral covers album from an aging prog rocker? Not surprisingly, "Scratch My Back" is, by turns, brilliant and odd. It's a sparse, stark, elegiac album of minimalist compositions that deliberately takes the listener out of his comfort zone. With Peter's cracked, soulful vocals hanging on John Metcalfe's sharp, aural landscapes, "Back" wears its concept like a fragile exoskeleton. It's a mournful and sometimes-thrilling performance that sacrifices synth for strings, easy hooks for meditation and gloss for exposure.

It's an effect that works stunningly on the album's most transformative tracks -- Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" and Talking Heads' "Listening Wind." The instruments simmer and soar under, not over, the rhythmic gravel of Peter's voice. In fact, "Cage" probably deserves comparison to Johnny Cash's "Hurt" in terms of passion and performance. No longer a tale of youth-fed angst, the song becomes an explosion of aged apprehension and disquiet. Peter's voice is so clear and fearlessly imperfect that he could be singing in a dark, haunted wood or in your own hallway.

Yes, the concept here is tenuous, but "Back's" successes are many. "Mirrorball" and "Book of Love" are gorgeous and lush, and "Heroes" is a wonderful, slow burn. The album's biggest revelation, though, might be "The Power of the Heart." A mostly unknown and beautifully written Lou Reed song, "Heart" was ripe for discovery. Once you've heard Peter's rendition, you'll wonder why you've never heard it before.

But the album's imperfections are hard to ignore. It's difficult to sustain an entire disc of mostly-morose chamber music. In fact, I guarantee that many of these songs will reveal themselves most fully when thrown onto a mix tape, shuffled into a playlist or featured among the rock and electronica on a movie soundtrack. And it doesn't help that the last two songs, "Philadelphia" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," seem less like thread-bare confessions and more like off-key whimpers. Only in the final 8 or 9 minutes of this stunning, one-hour album does the exoskeleton finally start to buckle.

For every person who calls "Scratch My Back" moving, meditative and poignant, there will be someone who calls it overwrought, ponderous and contrived. You may absolutely adore these lovely bones, or you might resent them. Just do yourself a favor and shuffle a few of these tracks into your playlist. You might be surprised.

BEST TRACKS: "My Body is a Cage," "Listening Wind," "The Power of the Heart," "Mirrorball"

A Lush, Exquisite, and Expansive Album of Cover Songs

SCRATCH MY BACK is truly an album that has exceeded my expectations. This is a work that will be listened to over and again for many a moon. Yes, these are cover songs, but Gabriel brings something new to each and every one, and has asked the artists and bands whose song he covers on this album to each cover one of his songs (that's why there are two double A-sides out as singles now, including Paul Simon's cover track of Gabriel's "Biko" - that track, as well as Magnetic Field's cover, need to be purchased separately). Don't come to this album expecting anything up-beat. It's an album full of almost slow-motion cover songs, emphasizing the lyrics, and, on some tracks, the melody, and it's completely devoid of drums and guitar. Gabriel never ceases to challenge his audience, and this album is no exception. A full listen will require patience, but that patience will be rewarded by the beauty of the music and a new recognition of the amazing songwriting present throughout as emphasized by Gabriel's always-stellar singing.

Re-interpreting songs, not covering them.

When I hear of a cover album, I groan and assume that an artist owes an album company one more recording to get out of a contract. This would have greatly surprised me with Peter Gabriel. Peter Gabriel, much like David Bowie whose Heroes is the first track on this collection, has never been one to remain comfortable with one image. Other reviewers have referred to him as a prog rocker. Yes, once upon a time he was. Then he had success with pop songs (albeit very thoughtful and high quality ones). He has always been inspired by world music and instrumentation, and he has been a instrumental soundtrack composer. In recent incarnations he has become much edgier even as he aged - the opposite of what usually happens. And that is Peter Gabriel. Now, he has done it again by taking another left turn by recording a cover album in which he does more than cover songs.

The songs on this album were obviously chosen due to the quality of the writing. In an effort to celebrate the lyrics, Mr. Gabriel has re-arranged the songs to emphasize the poetry and meaning contained in them. There are soaring and minimalistic moments in the arrangements, each used to emphasize the meaning of the lyrics. I guarantee you that you will hear the words to many of these songs in ways that you have never listened to them before. In this way, calling it a "cover album" does it a disservice. This is an album containing re-interpretations of songs, much like a classical piece can be performed by different orchestras to bring out new messages.

If you are expecting Sledgehammer or Steam, you will be disappointed. On the other hand, if you enjoyed Father, Son, you will love this. Mr. Gabriel has always had a tendency toward somewhat dark and thoughtful themes for his own music, and this is reflected in his choice of others' music and in the arrangements on this album. As DJLanda pointed out, this may not be an album you will consistently play straight through, but it is perfect for when you are in a thoughtful state of mind, and you want to really listen intently to the songs. I guarantee that, when one of these selections come up in your shuffle, you will stop what you are doing to pay it attention. The music is too poignant to ignore.

The only reason for 4/5 stars is that I would have to be in a certain mood to listen to the whole album at one sitting.

Biography

Born: February 13, 1950 in London, England

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

As the leader of Genesis in the early '70s, Peter Gabriel helped move progressive rock to new levels of theatricality. He was no less ambitious as a solo artist, but he was more subtle in his methods. With his first eponymous solo album in 1977, he began exploring darker, more cerebral territory, incorporating avant-garde, electronic, and worldbeat influences into his music. The record, as well as its two similarly titled successors, established Gabriel as a critically acclaimed cult artist, and...
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