Throughout Peter Gabriel's long career — first as the camouflaged frontman and creative catalyst for Genesis, and then in his often groundbreaking solo work — he's been one of rock's most original artists. Whether penning elaborately plotted and executed suites and rock operas ("The Return of the Giant Hogweed," "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway") or reordering ideas about pop music and videos ("Sledgehammer," "Big Time"), Gabriel has been among the leaders in an industry noted for pack behavior. That's why it might seem strange for Gabriel to do a whole album covering other artists' material, as he does on Scratch My Back.
But Gabriel's genius is revealed at every level on Scratch My Back, from the artists he chooses to cover to his offbeat song choices by more conventional artists and how he reconstructs these songs to suit his concept. Original versions are all but abandoned as Gabriel interprets those songs from the ground up, rearranging the music for piano and orchestra — no guitars or drums — and completely retooling the vocal melodies for a collection of songs that bear the loosest resemblance to the original tracks. Stripped of its bouncy backdrop, Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" exudes more emotional resonance, "Power of the Heart" proves to be one of Lou Reed's most tremulously affecting love songs, and the Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage" is a quietly swelling revelation. Gabriel leaves Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love" and Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" largely intact, deciding not to tinker with perfection and merely adapting the songs to his purpose. Scratch My Back may be Gabriel's most impressive solo accomplishment, simply because it's an album that reinforces his originality through his vision of other artists' work. — Brian Baker