These days, album-length covers collections tend to be minor footnotes in a musician's catalog, ranked somewhere just above live albums, holiday recordings and those greatest-hits packages that tack on one or two new songs. After all, covers albums at least seem as if they should be easy to assemble, in large part because they remove the artistic and logistical hurdle of writing songs. And, for their part, listeners tend to process them by way of comparison rather than raw appreciation.
Leave it to Peter Gabriel, who's been recording at an ever more deliberate pace for the past quarter-century, to make the art of the covers album a slow and painstaking one. Back in 2010, he released one called Scratch My Back — on which he tackles songs by Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Randy Newman, Regina Spektor, Lou Reed and more — with the stated intention that he'd follow it with an album of those same artists returning the favor. But loving an artist and soliciting his or her love in return are two different things, logistically speaking, and it's taken nearly four years for And I'll Scratch Yours to greet the world.
Out Jan. 7, the latter album pulls off its mission, at least in part, with eclectic but frequently satisfying results. Several of these songs popped up in various places a couple years ago — including Arcade Fire doing "Games Without Frontiers" and Bon Iver tackling "Come Talk to Me" — which goes to show how long it's taken And I'll Scratch Yours to come together. But some clever, even revelatory moments have jelled in the time since. In one of his final performances, Reed gives "Solsbury Hill" an achingly intimate and characteristically gritty reading, while Newman is an inspired choice to take on the satirical "Big Time." Feist and Timber Timbre have blended their alternately sweet and haunted voices before, and they make a fine match in a faithful reading of "Don't Give Up."
Speaking of Feist, she, Brian Eno and Joseph Arthur didn't have their songs covered on Scratch My Back, and their presence couldn't possibly make up for the absence of holdouts David Bowie, Neil Young and Radiohead. (Eno co-wrote David Bowie's "Heroes," which Gabriel covered on Scratch My Back, but that's not exactly a 1:1 trade.) Radiohead's absence stings more than the others' — the band had agreed to cover "Wallflower," but backed out after hearing Gabriel's version of "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" — but even that's appropriate in its own way. If our love were always reciprocated, we wouldn't need to sing about it, right?