For many singer-songwriters, there comes a time to make an album of other people's songs. That's what Peter Gabriel does with "Scratch My Back" (Virgin), released this month.
It's his first solo studio album in eight years in a multitasking career: technology projects, musical collaborations, humanitarian initiatives, parenthood.
"There's a Slow Food movement," he said. "I think I'm part of the Slow Music movement."
A covers album can be a tribute or a miscellany, a throwaway or a statement about what a songwriter holds dear.
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In recording company offices, hopes arise that a familiar voice and a familiar song can add up to radio play.
Gabriel's voice is the most recognizable aspect of the album. It's the baritone that lent gravity to the early Genesis, to Gabriel's 1970s and '80s hits "Solsbury Hill" and "Sledgehammer," and to "Down to Earth," the Oscar-nominated song he wrote with Thomas Newman for the soundtrack of "Wall-E" in 2008.
On "Scratch My Back" Gabriel has placed his voice in a new wilderness.
The material is by rock songwriters, including Neil Young, Radiohead and David Bowie, along with indie-rockers Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. (Its most recent songs are from 2008: "Flume" by Bon Iver and "The Power of the Heart" by Lou Reed.)
The songs don't rock: Mostly they hover. Only one song, Randy Newman's despondent "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," resembles the original. Gabriel's other cover versions are slow, moody and willful, backed by orchestra and chamber ensembles.
"I was trying to make a grown-up record," said Gabriel, 60. "This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I've courted the lowest common denominator before, but there's a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn't present on this record."
Many of the arrangements are eerie and astringent, and the mood, even in love songs, is desolate. "Happy music that is genuinely joyful is probably the hardest music to write," Gabriel said. "I think miserable stuff is more natural to the human condition and maybe more cathartic."
He chose the material in a kind of social-networking experiment. "Scratch My Back" got its title because when Gabriel picked a song, he asked the songwriter to record a Gabriel song in turn. The plan was to release two albums in tandem. The songwriters agreed - except David Bowie, whose collaborator on "Heroes," Brian Eno, will participate - but the deadlines came and went.
Instead, every full moon Gabriel plans to release a two-song digital download on iTunes.
Gabriel said: "I'm often guilty of overcooking and too much arrangement and throwing too much at it. But I think as I get older, I'm learning better when to be empty and when to be full."