So, Peter Gabriel released an album with coversongs of his own musical heroes and a couple of years later most of them have returned the favour with their own versions of his songs. I initially only wanted to write about my two favourite artists but then curiosity got the best of me and I had to listen to and review all songs on the album. Damn it, I can’t help it, I love Gabriel too much not to see what other musicians make with his long long discography.
Elbow have a long creative relationship with Gabriel whose studio has been a frequent place for the production of Elbow’s albums. His cover version of “Mirror Ball” didn’t quite work for me personally but that’s probably because “The Seldom Seen Kid” is one of the greatest albums of all times and no cover of any song on it can ever cut it. But Elbow’s version of “Mercy Street” is quite haunting.
The song was originally written for poet Anne Sexton. The song itself is another example why “So” is quite possibly his greatest album to date as it creates a nearly spiritual atmosphere musically but still feels raw and vulnerable in the lyrics.
Now, Elbow’s version of the song is a stripped down version, as if they stepped out of the church and into an open field to sing this ode to Sexton. The great thing about the original and the cover is that they both have a different approach to the same warm sadness that Gabriel initially created. Elbow’s interpretation doesn’t go out of its way to be different but still is its own entity and it doesn’t feel sacrilegious or repetitive.
Now, “Blood of Eden” is another approach because even with the same lyrics, it takes quite some time to recognize the original song from Spektor’s interpretation.
Given that the original was one of the great (and greatest) love songs from Gabriel written for Sinead O’Connor and that she provided the female vocals on the album “Us”, I still think that the original is the much stronger song of the two versions but Regina has a certain way of owning any song she sings that even the changes to the melody (which I usually hate) are somewhat charming.
As for some of the other cover-songs:
Bon Iver’s bluegrassy/choir-heavy “Come talk to me” is ambitious and has a certain magic to it because it feels like a warm hug but I love the original so much that I can’t get behind it. Gabriel once said that he wrote this song after he had spent weeks in his studio and his daughter one day showed up in the doorway and said ‘talk to me’ because she hadn’t seen her dad for such a long time. It’s such a great way to apologize to his family and the song itself is so powerful with its epic, festive intro and the overall strength that symbolizes the emotional impact on this plea “talk to me” (Also, Sinead sang again in the background and their voices fit so perfectly – little side note: In some of the live shows, Gabriel’s daughter sings the background which is beautiful). Iver’s version seems to be a little too aloof to portray it accordingly. Still, on its own, it’s a great interpretation.
David Byrne’s “I don’t remember” is a giant leap from Gabriel’s version but still – obviously – sounds a lot like the 80s, only less pop and more…well, more David Byrne. It’s fun as hell and a great introduction to the album.
Stephen Merritt’s “Not one of us” is actually a little to exhausting for me and the same goes for Joseph Arthur’s interpretation of “Shock the Monkey”. I freaking love the original, it’s such an angry and intense song about a romance gone bad and Arthur kind of drones it out into this slurring exercise in patience…it’s not for me.
Man…unlike a lot of people I actually think that Randy Newman is pretty awesome and has written some killer songs. But hearing “Big Time”, one of Gabriel’s most cheeky songs about the bigger-better-bolder-culture of the 80s, out of Newman’s mouth, with Newman’s voice is just weird and comical in a sense that probably wasn’t intended. It’s outright absurd.
“Games without frontiers” is my favourite of Gabriel’s songs that he also sung in German (he did numerous of his albums in German). The German version is so great because obviously the beauty of the soft and tender German language works quite well with the beauty of soft and tender war-games.
Arcade Fire’s version is nice, especially the unease in the composition works fine but to be quite honest, I don’t feel like it’s a different approach to the song and for some weird reason, it just makes me want to listen to the original instead of listening to the cover version again.
I think Brian Eno’s song choice is really interesting as “Mother of Violence” is one of my favourites of Gabriel’s earliest albums and not that known. His interpretation…well, I guess it’s artistic but letting all vocal melodies fall to the wayside to create a somewhat dissonant, brutal 80s deconstruction of the actually low-key song is weird for me.
I respect the bold move to go all out with this version, though, and what else did you expect from Eno? Still, the vulnerable original is a lot stronger in my humble opinion. I am quite sure, though, that Gabriel loves this.
Feist could only lose with her version of “Don’t give up” even though she had Timber Timbre by her side. But come on, the original was not only sung by Gabriel but also by Kate Bush – that’s even better than Peter Gabriel and Sinead O’Connor because Gabriel and Bush are some of the weirdest, most unusual musicians of pop music and this song about the feelings of powerlessness in times of unemployment is one of the strongest songs ever to address social and gender issues with such a subtle and emphatic approach. Honestly, to detail a father’s and husband’s helplessness because he feels as if he can’t make his family proud without a job – it’s heartbreaking and probably still speaks to a lot of people. Kate – voicing the loving wife – who wants to assure her man that his role in the family is not diminished by his unemployment, is the perfect choice for the song (even though Gabriel approached Dolly Parton first – she would have done a good job but I am very happy that she turned the offer down and Bush took the part).
For Feist and Timber Timbre to try this song is commendable but they never had a chance. Beginning with Feist’s weird vocal-exercises in the intro that seem out of place in a song like this (this is no Mariah Carey-song, woman!) to the feeling that Timber Timbre and Feist don’t really sing to each other but individually to the listener, the version feels flat on an emotional level.
Lou Reed’s version of “Solsbury Hill” is just what you would expect. As “Solsbury Hill” is one of my all-time favourite songs, I thought I would never ever be able to appreciate a droning Reed-interpretation but boy oh boy…it’s actually a beautiful rendition with his iconic meandering guitar-play and obvious fun with the vocals. Given that it’s one of Lou’s last musical endeavours it’s doubly moving.
Little side note: First I was a little enraged that people would “booh” the great Lou Reed until I realized that they were shouting “Lou”…
The last song on the album is sung by Paul Simon and its Gabriel’s most powerful political song that gets a completely new appearance with Simon’s interpretation. “Biko” is like a hit in the stomach because Gabriel’s original version is full of desperation and anger.
Simon – whose world music-influences shine just as bright as Gabriel’s throughout his musical career – makes it an intimate and solemn hymn without the anger but still with the love and sadness over the story of Steve Biko. It’s a great ending for an overall strong album and proves that not all 60s/70s musicians have turned into caricatures of themselves.