Peter Gabriel's second solo album boasts one of rock's most iconic cover photos: the singer and songwriter, gazing directly into the camera, literally scratching apart his visage. It's an appropriate metaphor for the record itself: For the first time since leaving Genesis, it truly felt like Gabriel was obliterating his old image and reinventing himself as a songwriter and sonic craftsman.

Gabriel had already made steps toward that goal with his self-titled 1977 debut, a purposefully eclectic mix of art-rock wackiness and upbeat pop. (With his first solo single, 'Solsbury Hill,' he'd even penned a poignant reflection on his future career.) This second self-titled effort ('Peter Gabriel II' or 'Scratch,' depending on your preference) isn't as instantly likable -- this is Gabriel's least melodic album, his most experimental, his most "punk" in the broadest sense. But by making a radical U-turn, he'd finally shed all traces of his previous self, forging toward a darker, more nuanced style.

"I just like to expose my scalp," Gabriel told a German interviewer in 1978, in response to a question about his unexpected buzz-cut. "I can hear the raindrops falling on my head." And the album itself feels exposed in ways his others don't. The production (courtesy of King Crimson legend Robert Fripp) is icy and detached, favoring Fripper-tronic soundscapes and stark rhythms, slathering Gabriel's voice in echo (the boisterous rocker 'On the Air') or deepening it to a pitch-shifted boom (the Fripp-led atmospherics of 'Exposure'). Vocally, Gabriel sounds both sedated and visceral, in sharp contrast to the pitch-perfect perfectionism he'd display on subsequent releases.

Gabriel never made another album this messy or unhinged: 'Mother of Violence' is a haunting piano ballad with a lovely, fly-on-the-wall-demo quality; 'A Wonderful Day in a One-Way World' is arguably the silliest, funkiest song he's ever written.

"I never categorize musicians in the same way the press does," Gabriel told DJ Bryan Chandler in 1978. "[Fripp] was interested in doing it, and I think in terms of the sound textures that he comes up with and the way he approaches music, I thought some sort of procedural ideas would be really useful ... I wanted it to sound more like a band situation than a singer with session men."

'Scratch' stands out as an awkward outlier in Gabriel's catalog. Unlike his follow-up masterpiece, 1980's third self-titled LP (or 'Melt'), there are no hit singles here, no mind-melting master tracks, no unifying sonic clarity. But that's part of 'Scratch''s messy, moody brilliance.

More From Ultimate Classic Rock