Just do a song search on iTunes for any Beatles song ~ like "Hey Jude" ~ and you'll see what I mean. Dozens of covers are out there in the music stratosphere. Some covers do justice (Norah Jones singing Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" on Herbie Hancock's award-winning The Joni Letters comes to mind) and some are just plain painful to listen to (Tony Bennett covering The Beatles' "Something" before his '90s comeback was agonizing).
Along comes Peter Gabriel, a favorite singer/songwriter of mine ~ with one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices on this planet from his own songs like "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" (described by Parales as ancient-mariner baritone) ~ who has turned recording covers topsy-turvy thanks to his creative and thoughtful muse. His new album, released earlier this month, is called Scratch My Back and its title comes from his interest in interpreting other musician's works ~ and, in return, hopefully having that artist record one of his songs.
On Scratch My Back, Gabriel pays homage to Paul Simon, David Bowie, the Talking Heads, and Neil Young as well as to younger artists like Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields, Bon Iver and Regina Spektor. And in doing so, he has stripped away all guitars and drums ~ a self-imposed restriction in the creative process ~ and re-scored 12 songs, adding chamber strings to some, piano to others. Thus far, in this social networking experiment, Simon has returned the favor by recording the Gabriel classic "Biko" and Stephin Merrit of Magnetic Fields has covered "Not One of Us."
One song in particular from Scratch My Back immediately caught my attention from first listen two weeks ago: Gabriel's interpretation of Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble."
A great pop song in its own right, "The Boy in the Bubble" first appeared on Simon's 1986 Graceland album and is very lively and upbeat when performed in concert. In an interview with NPR, Gabriel called "The Boy in the Bubble" one of the "great pop lyrics of the last century."
"It was a slow day,
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road,
There was a bright light,
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio,
These are the days of miracle and wonder,
This is the long distance call,
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all,
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in the corner of the sky,
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby don't cry
Taking a very upbeat and vibrant song as written and recorded by Simon, Gabriel transformed "The Boy in the Bubble" into a slow and somber ~ almost dirge-like ~ minor-key work with just the barest piano and sparse string accompaniment. It's the tone and shape of Gabriel's voice ~ whispery but full of theatrics ~ that struck a chord with me. I gain something new each time I re-listen to it.
"We sort of sucked out all of the African elements, and you're left with the skeleton, which is an extraordinary thing in itself," said Gabriel in the NPR interview for Weekend Edition Sunday. "And I think a lot of people, myself included, heard the lyrics in a different way, in a new context."
Stripping a song down to its bare melody and lyric ~ desperate and exposed ~ can be a thing of simplicity and beauty. Sometimes empty is better than full.