A quiet beauty: Mirrorball by Elbow

Inspired by hearing Peter Gabriel’s cover of ‘Mirrorball’ on Scratch My Back, I went in search of the original.

There’s a hypnotic beauty to this, a stark simplicity to the ostinato running through it that imparts a quiet majesty.

The subtle shift to the mediant minor – G minor – works because the piece is in E major; the move to G minor negates the tonic’s major third, a brief extinguishing of the major key and imparts a bitter-sweet sense to the harmonic flavour. It’s only fleeting, though – there follows an F sharp major chord, and we’ve undergone a iii-ii-I cadential progression, enhanced by the aching G natural – A – G sharp figure in the accompanying strings.

Actually, the piece is in E, but the theme yearns upwards to a minor seventh – listen to the first line ‘I plant the kind of kiss / That wouldn’t wake a baby,’ where the D natural on ‘wake’ introduces a dominant seventh. Strictly speaking, the piece should modulate at some point to A major, if the dominant seventh on E were to function properly. But it doesn’t; the dwelling on the dominant seventh creates a sense of yearning, of unrequited sentiment and a lack of fulfillment.

There’s a quasi-minimalist quality to both the texture and the harmonic fabric of the piece, giving it that bewitching appeal.

It’s a mesmerising track; give it room. Elbow room.

Run for covers: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

Cover versions make me nervous. You have to do something really interesting, really worthwhile and different with a new version of a song, rather than simply re-hashing someone else’s version of it. Pop music is littered with ill-advised, car-crash cover versions of otherwise brilliant songs, not least of which is last year’s X-Factor finalists’ version of David Bowie’s Heroes, which surely dserves an award for reaching new heights of stunning mediocrity.

Which is why Scratch My Back by ex-Genesis front-man Peter Gabriel stands, for me, as an object lesson in how to do covers properly – not least because it includes a cover of Heroes far removed from Bowie’s angst-ridden brilliant rendition, and creates it instead inside a tranquil landscape governed by the accompanying strings. There’s just as much tension straining to be released as in the original, but here it’s tempered by a weary resignation: we can be heroes, but we probably won’t be.

There’s an eclectic mix of artists covered, including Radiohead, Arctic Fire, Bon Iver and Paul Simon. There’s a wonderfully shimmering realisation of Elbow’s Mirrorball, that begins intimately, with small repetitive string ostinati that rotate like, well, a mirrorball, and move to more grandiose, ravishing, surging string gestures.
Talking Heads’ Listening Wind is nervous, edgy, with fragments of phrases shifting and jostling uncomfortably to find their place. Lou Reed’s Power of the Heart unfurls some rich brass writing, whilst Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going To Rain Today strips away strings and brass and sits quietly atop a solo piano accompaniment in a way that’s gently terrifying.

Listen to it on we7.com here: you won’t be disappointed. And, if you’ve been witless enough to buy one, take your copy of the X-Factor’s banal, pointless rendition and burn it, it’s dire: shame on you for buying in to the Cowell Leviathan of Crassness.

(Audio excerpts via LastFM).

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