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), which is being released on Tuesday in the United States. It’s his first solo studio album in eight years in a multitasking career: technology projects, musical collaborations, humanitarian initiatives, parenthood.

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Reuters Nadav Kander
Peter Gabriel's “Scratch My Back” is released on Tuesday.


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“There’s a Slow Food movement,” he said in an interview during a New York City stopover. “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. The production can imitate the original arrangements, the way Seal and Rod Stewart did on their recent soul collections, or apply a distinctly personal approach, as Rosanne Cash did on “The List.” Meanwhile, in recording company offices, hopes arise that a familiar voice and a familiar song can add up to radio play.

Mr. Gabriel’s voice is the most recognizable aspect of the new album. It’s the ancient-mariner baritone that lent gravity to the early Genesis, to Mr. Gabriel’s 1970s and ’80s hits like “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. But on “Scratch My Back” Mr. Gabriel has placed his voice in a new wilderness.

The material is by rock songwriters, including Mr. Gabriel’s fellow arena veterans like Neil Young, Radiohead and David Bowie, along with indie-rockers like the Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. (Its most recent songs are both from 2008: “Flume” by Bon Iver and “The Power of the Heart” by Lou Reed.) But the songs don’t rock: mostly they...