When word came that the new Peter Gabriel album would be a collection of covers, that made news throughout the music world. From Bowie to Arcade Fire, the set list is full of surprises. The fact that there would be no rock band in the usual sense, but rather an orchestra backing up his vocals, almost became an afterthought.
Then Renee Fleming, the soprano known to her legions of fans as “The Voice,” announced that she too would be doing an album of indie rock covers, and suddenly it seemed like everyone must be doing it. Nada Surf’s forthcoming album is a covers disc. Cat Power has done it twice.
But I feel obliged to point out that the covers album is not a new phenomenon. David Bowie’s Pin Ups, a covers album devoted to English rock songs of the 60s, came out in 1973 - to largely scathing reviews, by the way, though now more people know Bowie’s versions of most of these songs than the originals.
What is the attraction of the covers album? For the artist, it’s a chance to do a whole set of songs you love. But as the Pin Ups reviews show, you always risk offending fans of the originals. For us listeners, it’s also a double-edged sword. I would rather hear Peter Gabriel do a new set of Peter Gabriel songs than hear his renditions of other people’s work. On the other hand, the covers album is a rare glimpse behind the curtain, showing the artist’s own musical tastes and influences. In a funny way, it almost make me think I know Peter Gabriel a bit better.
Tell us: Are cover albums a good concept? Or a cop out?