Where Sensuality and The Spirit Meet: A Review Of Peter Gabriel’s “Scratch My Back”

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In the book of Hebrews is the passage that says “the word of God is living and active… dividing soul and spirit”, and though this may not be the application that the writer intended, I’m reminded of the verse today as I think of the difference between the spiritual and the sensual. While they are different, sometimes they intersect, and the places where they meet are often a beautiful occasion for joy and delight. They complement each other, the sensual introducing another layer of enjoyment of the spiritual, and the spiritual providing boundaries and context for a right enjoyment of the sensual.

It’s obvious that the sensual instinct is a strong one and easily exploited. At its worst it’s like the person at the party who wants everyone’s attention, talking too loud, flirting with everyone, and cutting in on every conversation. It’s allure can be seen on every magazine cover in the grocery check out line that brazenly tugs on the sleeve of our sensual self, asking us to give our money, attention, and worship to empty promises of gratification that it can’t deliver.

41r5pa0d3zlMore troubling though are the subtler deceits of misguided sensuality that distort even our spiritual enthusiasms. The worship of worship music is an example of this, where we judge whether church was “good” or if God “showed up” in our gatherings based on whether or not we felt something (reducing the work of the spirit to a mere sensual encounter).

If we let it, sensuality can be a tyrant that demands we worship ourselves and our own pleasures. It asks to be an end in and of itself.

It can’t be all bad, though. Our sensual instinct may be an easy target, but we do well to remember that God created us with a capacity for sensual experience, so rather than demonizing it as many Christians do, maybe we do better to seek Him for the wisdom and strength to enjoy it as he intended. Like anything else, sensuality is a gift best enjoyed in moderation, in submission to the spirit, kept in check from overpowering and blinding us to the spiritual.

What does this have to do with a record review? Well, these are the thoughts my mind turned to when listening to Peter Gabriel’s new record Scratch My Back, a collection of covers conceived as a song exchange where the artists he covers here will, in turn, cover one of his songs for a future collection called …And I’ll Scratch Yours.

Gabriel, I think, has always understood that music is both spiritual and sensual and his catalog is full of successive, ambitious experiments in connecting the dots between the two. Scratch My Back is a worthy addition to his ongoing conversation with his audience.

pgabrielIf you only know Gabriel by his hits – “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” and even “In Your Eyes” – you don’t really know him, and if you want a good primer on the work of one of popular music’s most reverent, ambitious, and artful practitioners, check out “Secret World Live”. I’m confident you’ll enjoy it.

Gabriel’s soulful voice, wide-eyed curiousity, humble intelligence, and spiritual enthusiasms combine for a musical playground where high minded concept comes to us with a serious bass groove. In the past Gabriel’s art could be described as an intersection where the technologies and sensibilities of contemporary pop/rock collide with traditional African, Asian, and other cultural music and nobody gets hurt. And Gabriel’s songwriting is just as adventurous as the music he wraps it up in, producing songs about marriage, death, and God.

This time out, though, he puts down his writer’s pen to give his attention to songs he loves by other artists. He also gives the band a day off, eschewing drums, bass, and guitars in favor of classical orchestration. After a long tradition of pushing and playing with the limits of popular musicality, Peter Gabriel puts away his toys and comes back home to what brought him to the party in the first place: the song.

To make sure the song itself is heard, he strips it bare of the sensual trappings of pop/rock instrumentation, collaborating with orchestral arranger James Metcalf to reinvent songs by Arcade Fire, Davie Bowie, Bon Iver, The Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Regina Spektor, Radiohead and others, setting them against a sparse back-drop of harrowingly beautiful orchestration.

The result is, to my ears, a place where the spiritual and the sensual intersect, a place of beauty, delight, and generous surprises.

Gabriel lovingly holds these songs out to us, and invites us to listen – to really listen. Even if they are songs we think we know, he offers them to us in a way where we can hear them again for the first time. I think his greatest gift to the writers is not only that he reverently chose to sing their songs, but that he does so in a way that rescues these beautiful relics of popular culture from the confines of their own milieu, and transforms them into something timeless, sometimes even transcendent. I love songs from the 80’s and 90’s, but they always sound like they’re from the 80’s and 90’s because of mixing conventions at the time of their production, etc. So I hear the song, but I also hear the era the song comes from, the market the song was recorded for, and so on. In other words, I hear a sensual signature.

I’ve got an apt personal example from my marriage about this, and though I run the risk of of being compared to Ricky Bobby, I’ll still run with it and hope it’s not too awkward.

You see, I suppose it’s also kind of like this: I love my wife. Taya is a gifted, strong, delightful, intelligent, funny, and wise woman. She is a good mother and an infinitely enjoyable conversationalist. I’m fortunate that she is also beautiful, pleasing to look at and to hold. I love her for all of these reasons, and sometimes all at the same time.

She’s got this black dress, and it’s my favorite. I love when she wears it because she looks beautiful and it wakes up my God given sensual desire for her. And though it’s good and right that I feel this way (and good and right that she wears it occasionally), it can obscure the other reasons I love her, so that if she wore it every day – though I might like it at first – I might forget how much I enjoy the quieter delights of just having a conversation with her, or how much I admire her competent home-schooling of our kids, or the way she works so hard to keep our house tidy, or her insightful observations, and so on.

I love popular music and it’s conventions – especially the ways you can bend and play with those conventions the way Sufjan Stevens does, or Tom Waits, or Imogen Heap, or of course Peter Gabriel – but the sensual adventure of grooves, bass lines, and shimmering guitar tones can obscure a song by dressing it up in a sexy black dress. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – music by its nature is a sensual gift that we get to enjoy. But music is also spiritual, and beneath the black dress there is sometimes a song that might also like to have a conversation with us, and should be loved for it’s wisdom and strength as much as the fact that you can dance to it.

I LOVE Paul Simon’s Cajun-esque “Boy In The Bubble”, but I heard the beauty and soul of the lyric anew when Gabriel set it against a melancholy piano playing simple triads against minimalist strings… it took my breath away. “Yeah, right! I loved this song not just because of Simon’s cool accordion part and Afro-Cajun shuffle, but because it’s a great song!

Don’t get me wrong, Scratch My Back is still a record that you feel. In fact, it brought tears to my eyes several times when I first listened to it. It is emotional and a delight to the senses, but to my ear the arrangements allow a chance for the spirit of these songs to rise to the surface and be loved.

The album opens with David Bowie’s “Heroes” – a bombastic rock song that here begins as a vulnerable prayer before growing into a powerful and textured anthem. Throughout, the tracks reveal inventive arrangements that accomplish more than I would have imagined possible with an orchestra, like the necessary groove that a song like the Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind” needs. Bon Iver’s “Flume”, Simon’s “Boy In The Bubble”, and Lou Reed’s “the Power Of The Heart” are early favorites. (The Special Edition of this album includes The Kink’s “Waterloo” – a lovely extra track that I can’t understand why it didn’t make the final cut for the regular album. The few extra bucks is worth the Special Edition.)

Worth noting too is Gabriel’s compelling vocal performances. I’ve never heard him sound more vulnerable and believable than he does on this record, whispering, proclaiming, pleading, and confessing his way through these songs.

I think my favorite track is the Magnetic Fields’ “Book Of Love” – one of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard and that I would have missed if not for Gabriel. After hearing it, I sought out the original version and am pretty sure that I still would have missed it… Gabriel’s tender and unpretentious version sets the lyric center stage:

The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It’s full of charts and facts and figures
And instructions for dancing
But I, I love it when you read to me
And you, you can read me anything

The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
But I, I love it when you sing to me
And you, you can sing me anything

The book of love is long and boring
And written very long ago
It’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes
And things we’re all too young to know
But I, I love it when you give me things
And you, you ought to give me wedding rings

Sometimes melancholy, sometimes dramatic and dark, sometimes light and airy, this is a beautiful record. I love Gabriel’s cross cultural musical adventures and so had misgivings when I first heard he was doing orchestral arrangements of cover songs, but I’m happy to report that my fears were misplaced. Scratch My Back is a worthy entry in Gabriel’s impressive catalog.

“The book of love has music in it, in fact that’s where music comes from,” the song says, and I feel like Gabriel invites us into his personal reading room to read us some of his favorite passages. I’m grateful for both his love for these songs and his love for us that he would share them with us the way he has, taking us on a journey of both the spirit and the senses and some beautiful places where they intersect.

You can purchase the album on iTunes.


8 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Great review, Jason. Thanks. When I first heard this album a couple weeks ago from a site that was streaming the full album for promotional purposes, I loved what I heard. I immediately thought of Joni Mitchell’s Travelogue, an album done in a similar fashion, the difference being her album is basically a best-of featuring her own songs, with all the songs reinterpreted orchestrally. And as an orchestrator, obviously I love it.

  2. James Dye

    Picked up Secret World Live a number of years ago at a used VHS sale and it opened me up to a whole new world of Gabriel. From then on the works of Gabriel really grew on me. Loved your perspective on this album and it will make my future plays of it quite interesting. This album is so simple and beautiful. Really made we want to revisit some of the covers by Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball.

  3. David H

    “The book of love is long and boring
    No one can lift the damn thing
    It’s full of charts and facts and figures
    And instructions for dancing….”

    Just the other day my 16-year-old daughter and I were discussing love — and all that goes with it — during the car ride back from church.

    She dismissed the concept of love as just the product of biology, body chemicals, acculturation and environment combining to create a sense of beauty, a desire for companionship and, over all, an evolutionary imperative to reproduce.

    “I don’t see what’s the big deal,” she said, with certain dismissiveness. How can someone that age be so assured they have been there, done that and know it all?

    Yet, the truth is she already knows too much about love American style. Half her friends live in broken homes. Her own family fell apart before her eyes as parents went from silence to separate rooms to divvying up the days she would spend with each. And at school “love” is consummated almost without conversation, bartered for self-esteem or status or tickets to the prom, then used as a bludgeon when something goes wrong.

    So she points to Darwin and says: What else is there? Selective breeding is at once more logical and less painful than most of the things she sees people doing in the name of love.

    Perhaps in that there is some small measure of hope. She hasn’t bought into the national myth of love. Perhaps she won’t be swayed by the commercials, the peer pressure, the confectionary cliches, the glitter glue of romance and sex that has come to define love in this day.

    But even if she avoids all of those negatives, that still leaves the question: What else is there?

    I stammer about a commitment as a sturdy adhesive that carries couples through the fire and ice of anger and boredom, of the calming assurance that can come from experiences shared and survived, of the hope and joy that grows when love doesn’t hide from knowing and being known.

    If it was simply survival of the fittest, I insist, then every boy would be little more than an indiscriminate donor and every girl simply a appreciative receptacle to be filled. Her look tells me that is many, many of the “relationships” she has seen. So I try to evoke in her memories, glimpses, rumors as evidence we are not just animals mindlessly driven to perpetuate.

    We have brains and hearts and eternal souls to inform our choices, I say. We have friends, old and young, obviously living out relationships based on more than chemical bonds. We have those we fellowship with in church, some of whom have demonstrated a constancy in caring for each other and us that goes far beyond casual friendship.

    And, over all, we have a God whose crazy love doesn’t hinge on merit or reciprocation. A God who didn’t ignore a planet peopled with beings who mostly disdained him when they thought of him at all. A God who stepped into the world and with that act alone gave a special meaning to a word that, more than any other, has captivated, confused and consumed humans.

    Stephin Merritt, who wrote “The Book of Love,” as part of his 3 CD song cycle: “69 Love Songs,” says the song was written as an intentional collection of hackneyed phrases. Listening to him sing it, you sense a jaded cynicism accreted from age and experience. His deep bass is almost exhausted when it drones of heart-shaped boxes and wedding rings.

    There is more to love, his lyrics allow, but those are things we will always be too young to know.

    Peter Gabriel’s take on the song sounds almost like a patient counselor encouraging a disheartened companion to take one more look, to give one more try.

    Sure, love has devolved to sad facts and silly things, his soaring tenor seems to say, but it can be so much more.

    An interviewer recently asked Merritt what he thought of Gabriel’s re-imagining of his song. The usually down-beat songwriter fairly gushed in his response.

    “I think it’s fantastic,” Merritt said. “It’s a totally different interpretation. My arrangement and recording of it is emphatically skeletal and all about the insufficiency and helplessness, whereas his sounds like he’s God singing to you about his creation.”

    Proclaiming, or so it seems, to this fractured world and all its creatures:
    “The book of love has music in it
    In fact that’s where music comes from….”

  4. Amy

    I’ve been waiting for this to show back up! Just wanted to say that this is one of the most beautiful reviews I’ve read and I have enjoyed the music it convinced me to buy. 🙂 Thank you for taking time to share.

  5. Andrew Osenga

    Well, so much for my review. Glad I hadn’t started. I would have said about the exact same thing. I have to add, though, the production, though featuring only orchestra and piano, is far from simple. They did things on this record with those instruments I’ve never heard before. Mic’ing saxophones so you hear the click of the buttons as a rhythmic element, instead of the actual tone of the instrument. The same thing with the pedal on the piano. And the arrangements are stunning, creepy, beautiful, open, dark, just the whole gamut. I’ve never heard strings used this way and it’s inspiring. I hope Peter’s working on new songs of his own for us, but this record is fantastic.

  6. David H

    “And it’s hard to love, we’re learning
    But it’s worth all that it costs
    And we don’t know where we’re going
    but we just love getting lost…”

    @Andrew O
    I always welcome thoughts on music such as this from someone who wrote one of my favorite love songs of all time. In fact, this is almost the time of year when I put my iPod on replay, open the roof and windows, and crank up the volume on “Romeo on the Radio.”

    That song is a regrettably unrecognized gem and infuriatingly efficient at just under 3 minutes. Every time I listen I’m really getting into it — then it’s done.

    Beyond that is the harmony-inducing chorus and wall-of-sound backing vocals, which wonderfully complement the chiming guitars. The whole song fairly shimmers and would be a sweet late-spring mirage of a radio-friendly love song except for the lyrics.

    Those words morph from sunny driving rhymes to cloudy stanzas about our dark world and the difficulties of relationship therein. And it does all of that without missing one finger-snapping beat.

    I really enjoy the work you are doing these days. I tend to gravitate to the songs that resonate lyrically with my life like “The High School Band,” “We Were Sure We Could Change the World,” “If I Had Wings,” “The Priest and The Iron Rain” (evocative in some strange way of Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”), and “After the Garden” (with its sonic semi-references to “Romeo”).

    But there is something about that little love song that brings me back each year for an annual rite of listening and, I admit, howling at the heat of summer’s pending passion.

    I would never ask you to write another that sounds or seems the same. That’s a record executive’s soul-stunting plea. Still, I can’t help but wonder what someone like Peter Gabriel might make of “Romeo on the Radio.” In some fashion the song deserves — demands — to be heard again.

    And all this is simply to say, in what is hopefully not an overly fawning way, that I appreciate your thoughts. Anyone who writes music like yours is worth listening to.

  7. Kyle Carlson

    I’ve always thought Gabriel’s “So” was among the best pop albums ever made, but unfortunately my familiarity with his work hasn’t gone far beyond that terrific album. I appreciate this review, and am inspired to dig in deeper to Gabriel’s catalog.

    David H., your first comment is terrific. Heartbreaking and perceptive. Thanks for sharing.

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