Scott Walker – Tilt


Scott WalkerTilt Fontana 526 859-2 (1995)

Scott Walker’s later career has been enigmatic, to say the least.  He got his start singing light pop, and ended up in one of the first successful UK “boy band” rock acts, The Walker Brothers.  But friction over Scott’s obviously superior vocal abilities led to the band splitting up after just a few years.  His solo career burned brightly at first, but his finest work just didn’t meet with enough commercial success, and he drifted into country-pop terrain for a time, then reunited with The Walker Brothers.  Something unusual happened on the group’s post-reunion Nite Flights album, though.  Walker unveiled new, dark, menacing and genre-defying compositions like “The Electrician” and “Fat Mama Kick.”  He released one solo album, Climate of Hunter, in the early 1980s, but, despite an aborted effort with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, nothing further that decade.  By the early 1990s, he had started writing numerous new songs for a new album project finally released in 1995, Tilt.  Commenting on this paucity of output, he said, “I’ve become the Orson Welles of the record industry. People want to take me to lunch, but nobody wants to finance the picture.”

While some of Walker’s earlier works hint at the general contours of Tilt, the album is unique in a way few albums are.  Walker takes pop/rock song structures, strips away some of the most typical features of “rock” music, like a syncopated beat, then adds in industrial noises, obscure orchestration and quasi-operatic singing.  This was partly about taking elements of “high” and “low” culture that don’t typically appear together, and coming up with a hybrid that finds its feet not in fully synthesizing the disparate elements, but holding them in a kind of part synthesis and part oppositional juxtaposition.  This naturally leans toward the counterculture, in that pure “highbrow” arts admit nothing from outside their exclusive remit, save for the occasional “exoticism” or a tactical renormalization of an outside threat.  There are some musical precedents for this kind of approach in the most general sense, namely Nico‘s striking The Marble Index, which took gothic Euro-classical music and merged it with urban folk.  But Walker’s precise musical coordinates are different, and lean on obscure yet decidedly non-mainstream politics — they are overt, yet oblique enough to avoid easy identification with precise political currents.  He also developed a penchant for making his listeners stop and ask, “What?” are least once or twice per album.

If there is any great, lasting achievement here, it is that Walker reconfigures the relationship between singing and musical accompaniment in nominally pop/rock music.  The lyrics are non-linear, often cycling and vamping on brief phrases and sounds that mutate slowly, and they convey almost cinematic scenes, the contours of which are only hinted at.  His goal, he stated in an interview is for his singing to be “not too emotional and not too deadpan.”  The sonic accompaniment adds mood, and moves almost in loose parallel with the vocals, never really seeming like an integral part of the vocals in a harmonic or melodic sense, but linked to the lyrics to expand upon their meaning.  The result is something uncommonly dense.

The opener, “Farmer in the City: Remembering Pasolini” is dedicated to the late Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini.  The next song, “The Cockfighter,” includes bits of text lifted from the transcripts of the trials of Queen Caroline in 1820 (in English Parliament) and Nazi administrator Adolph Eichmann in 1961 (in Israel).  One was about a bill of attainder, a legislative act declaring a particularly person guilty of some crime and punishing them that took on the characteristics of a legislative “trial”, and the other an ex post facto trial, criminalizing conduct after it was conducted.  What commonalities these trials share is murky in Walker’s invocation, though both were constitutionally banned in the United States.  And how cockfighting relates to those trials is anyone’s guess, though it is a gruesome “sport” banned almost everywhere—it is also the title of a 1974 Monte Hellman film.  “Bolivia ’95” deals with the South American country that grew turbulent when national industries were being privatized.  Walker called the title track a “black Country music song.”  What do all these disparate things mean pulled together on one album?  What exactly.  It represents the new opacity and mystification of daily life under modernity.  There is a part of all this a bit like Thomas Pynchon‘s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, or Goethe‘s Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, or The Renunciants, in which the very diffuseness and difficulty of piecing together meaning is itself the focus.

In an interview more than a decade after the release of Tilt, promoting his next album, Walker said, “Essentially, I’m really trying to find a way to talk about the things that cannot be spoken of. I cannot fake that or take short cuts. There is an absurdity there, too, of course, and I hope that people pick up on that. Without the humour, it would just be heavy and boring. I hope people get that. If you’re not connecting with the absurdity, you shouldn’t be there.”  He cites Kafka as an influence, who used to laugh when reading his writing to friends.

“Bouncer See Bouncer…” introduces a device he would revisit on later albums (as with a bell on “Herod 2014” from Soused).  A repeating sound, not made by a conventional musical instrument, but sounding like a broken metal hinge banging together, chimes throughout the song.  It continues largely independent of everything else happening in the song.

Tilt has held up as one of Walker’s finest full-length albums.  It doesn’t make for casual listening, exactly.  But there is a mocking sarcasm beneath the dark and morbid exterior of these songs.  Tilt remains something rarely imitated, excepting perhaps Walker’s later albums.

Scott Walker + Sunn O))) – Soused


Scott Walker + Sunn O)))Soused 4AD CAD3428CD (2014)

Scott Walker continues to challenge himself and audiences.  With Soused, he has teamed with drone metal outfit Sunn O))).  Comparisons have been drawn to Lou Reed‘s collaboration with Metallica on Lulu (2011), but comparisons could equally be drawn to Tony Conrad working with Faust on Outside the Dream Syndicate (1972).  The album opens strongly with the two best tracks, “Brando” and “Herod 2014.”  “Brando,” which might have been inspired by the strange Arthur Penn western The Missouri Breaks (1976) starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, sounds the most like Walker’s most recent albums.  There is a recurring riff a bit like Guns N’ Roses‘ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” deflated and blunted.  The second track, “Herod 2014,” is the story of a mother hiding her children…from something not really named.  The song title is a reference to the biblical king of Judea.  There is a small bell that is repeatedly rung throughout the song, somewhat loudly at first but then pushed back into the background so that it is barely perceptible.  In an interview, Walker said, “The bell, in a sense, is representing her.”  The rest of the tracks, all written by Walker, come closer to the usual sound of Sunn O))).  They aren’t quite up to the first two tracks, but they don’t disappoint either.  This is a grim, confrontational album that tries to provoke and prod listeners.  But it also draws on plenty of dark, gallows humor.  It may not be the finest from either Walker or Sunn O))), but it is a worthy collaboration that finds a lot of common ground.

Scott Walker – We Had It All

We Had It All

Scott WalkerWe Had It All CBS 80254 (1974)

While Stretch hinted at a country sound, the follow-up Any Day Now fully invests in it.  But the result is something less interesting.  Walker proves ill-suited to much of the material here.  “The Black Rose”, for instance, with the lyrics Well, the devil made it do it the first time/ the second time I done it on my own, just seems ridiculous coming out of his mouth.  “Sundown” and “Delta Dawn” are perhaps reasonable offerings, but, by and large, this album is a low point in Walker’s catalog.  It is consistently uninspired.  Scott puts too little effort into this.  At best, it’s adequately performed.

The Walker Brothers – Nite Flights

Nite Flights

The Walker BrothersNite Flights GTO GTLP 033 (1978)

What to make of this?  The first four cuts are by Scott Walker, and they are pretty good — especially “The Electrician,” which is an unclassifiable melange of gothic classical, pop crooning, rock and more.  The rest of the album borders on the unlistenable.  Nothing balances out in the end.

Scott Walker – Scott 3

Scott 3

Scott WalkerScott 3 Philips SBL 7882 (1969)

Mr. Walker washed away every trace of duality on Scott 3. The beauty of his music comes through its resilience. Like a purple and sepia whirlwind. Fiercely strong from some inner source he taps. The primary mystery of Mr. Walker’s music is the absurdity of its context, casting Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett as steadfast existentialists. Each grand orchestral piece finely feeds personal concerns that meander about without dogma to guide or crush them. The great achievement is the dive into the void of pop crooning. In that void is the perfect space to make something happen. Mr. Walker’s gift was perhaps the vision to find his space, that invisible blank abyss which seemed to have always been in plain view. He recognized something was possible in his space, his nothingness.

This album lives in daylight, like a vista warmed into life by the sun. It is quite a different experience from the nighttime torment of Scott 4. It is lyrically imposing. The songs are difficult to penetrate, alien to prevailing reason. Still, the detached experience of hearing Mr. Walker question prevailing reason is what makes the album such a major achievement.

Though Mr. Walker’s name always carried little cachet in his American homeland, worldwide success wouldn’t have led to Scott 3. To parrot his lyrics, “In a world filled with friends/ you lose your way.”

Scott Walker – Scott 2

Scott 2

Scott WalkerScott 2 Philips BL 7840 (1968)

Scott Walker’s records were never exactly subtle.  They always had an unmistakably direct quality to them, but they could also have a stunning depth and complexity that wasn’t as immediately apparent.  His second solo effort Scott 2 is the most direct and straightforward of his 1960s output.  It does, however, come up a bit short on depth at times.  That isn’t to say it isn’t commendable.  His grandiose rendition of Tim Hardin‘s “Black Sheep Boy” is a triumph.  He was writing more originals, which, although often too blunt in execution here, primed those talents for the smashing artistic success of his next two efforts.  I know that many consider this their favorite Scott Walker album.  For me, it’s just a bit too brash and overconfident.  The novelty of his left-field crooner shtick had worn a bit.  He started to coast a little merely on what passes for edgy subject matter, without always offering a unique vision of it.  Scott 2 was a popular album no doubt, his highest charting solo album (#1 in the UK).  But F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beautiful and Damned wrote how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  Fortunately, perhaps, Walker didn’t seem to understand his commercial success, for he betrayed those elements many times in his career to produce something more than commercial.  Did anyone really think it was his hauntingly personal musical vision moving albums off the shelves anyway?

Scott Walker – Stretch


Scott WalkerStretch CBS 65725 (1973)

Scott Walker’s mid-1970s period was marked by a shift from adventurous re-imaginings of traditional pop to rather unchallenging exercises in country pop music (Glen Campbell is probably the closest comparison).  Stretch is an example of the latter, though the country elements are only just beginning to show.  Now, Scott’s voice was arguably in the best form it has ever been.  The problem is that stylistically he is playing by someone else’s rules, and his studio band often drifts into bland, clichéd territory.  Side two holds some particular interest, with the last clutch of songs managing to make an impression with Randy Newman‘s “Someone Who Cared” and “I’ll Be Home” and Jimmy Webb‘s “Where Does Brown Begin.”  The most effective moments come from songs a little more spare and intimate than Scott’s early solo efforts.  Not a bad album at all but still a little disappointing compared to what he has achieved elsewhere.  Yet Scott’s voice is so effective that this remains rather endearing.

Scott Engel – Scott 4

Scott 4

Scott EngelScott 4 Philips SBL 7913 (1969)

Scott 4 is easily one of my favorite albums.  I do recognize that some people won’t be able to relate to this music and therefore probably won’t bother to understand it. But I think that for what it is, Scott 4 is perfect.  Its compassion, realism and sincerity have always impressed me.

Over the course of thirty years Noel Scott Engel (under the stage name Scott Walker) went from pop heartthrob adored by swarms of teenage girls to cult icon to reclusive mystery man and dark experimental maverick. Scott Walker was born in America, but his fame in the 1960s and 70s came in England.

Most amazing is that this music exists at all. All attempts to categorize it fail. Is it part of the counterculture, or part of the establishment?  Or both?  Perhaps it’s the directness. Scott Walker takes his music directly into a soft vortex of emotion and intellect.

Scott Walker’s craft seems like bad idea on paper. Scott 4 isn’t an album you can convince people to like. Most of its supporters are the types that have heard everything under the sun and have come back to what less discerning ears would lump with much more forgettable music. Scott Walker’s voice may sound flip, but he made some of the most heartfelt music you may ever hear. Scott 4 is personal. It takes a certain something to appreciate the album’s depth, but that doesn’t lessen its achievement.

If I were to sum up Scott Walker’s career in the 1960s, I would say that his greatest accomplishment was taking the music of extroverts and turning it into music for introverts.  He took the kind of orchestral pop that has a lot of immediate and superficial appeal, and was the epicenter of the “old guard” of the institutions of the music industry, and turned it into music that is edgy and subtly a countervailing force against the establishment.  He obliterated the notion that orchestrated pop had any sort of deterministic, essentialist qualities.  It was a form that could serve any ends.  You won’t understand Scott Walker by listening to this album just once.  The craftsmanship and brilliant songwriting are surprisingly elusive. It is like he could hide things in plain view.  And it is as if he founds the seeds of something that included the old and the new, together, moving forward in a world where the all sorts of perspectives and musics have a chance to exist simultaneously and harmoniously with all their differences still intact.  Brilliant.

Scott Walker – ‘Til the Band Comes in

'Til the Band Comes In

Scott Walker‘Til the Band Comes In Philips 6308 035 (1970)

‘Til the Band Comes In is a transitional album.  Unfortunately, it finds Scott Walker transitioning from the artistic triumph of Scott 4 and his other earlier solo efforts to the crass commercialism of his mid-1970s output.  Despite its unevenness, the best material is among the man’s very finest and too good to pass up.  It all starts fine enough.  “Prologue” opens the album with sweeping strings that work quite effectively drawing in listeners.  “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)” is propelled with an odd meter (5/4).  Walker’s delivery of “Joe” bears an astonishing resemblance to Jack Jones.  Then “Thanks for Chicago Mr. James” arrives, building slowly with prescient glockenspiel chimes toward peaks that rush past in a dramatic fashion few but Scott Walker could muster.  It is the pinnacle of the album.  That is both the good news and the bad news.  While the album has its strengths, its flaws start to become apparent when Esther Ofarim rather than Walker sings the next song “Long About Now”.  It’s not that her performance is poor, but that she doesn’t have the same nuance and presence — she’s a bit like a stuffy, quavering version of Karen Carpenter, perhaps even comparable to Vashti Bunyan or the young Marianne Faithfull.  The guest vocal is doubly unfortunate because Walker’s voice was really in its finest form entering the early seventies, so any lost opportunity to hear him seems like a small tragedy.  As the album progresses, something else becomes apparent.  The songwriting isn’t always there.  The lyrics can be too blunt and the musical concepts sometimes feel like they revisit areas Walker has already explored, but with less compelling results this time around.  The overly affected “Time Operator” and the forced, trite “Cowbells Shakin” come to mind as the low points.  They are broken up by the bawdy cabaret number “Jean the Machine”, which, though a novelty song, does keep the pace moving (and that’s not to mention that it expresses sympathy for a “commie spy” during the Cold War).  The album does pick up a bit in the title track and the stirring “War Is Over (Epilogue)”, the latter having a shimmering grandiosity worthy of pause.  The cover “Stormy” is most definitely passable, though the last part of the album, post-epilogue, comes across as filler.  Wally Stott arranged most of the album, but Peter Knight arranged the last third — all covers.

Most of this album is fine, fine music.  Scott Walker does achieve something here.  Yet somewhere along the line, something slips from his fingers.  In some ways it’s a sign of the times, as the deepest material perfectly reflects a sense of nervous, incomplete satisfaction with the changing world, echoing the way Hunter S. Thompson wrote about the end of the Sixties, looking west with the right kind of eyes and almost seeing the high-water mark where the wave finally broke and rolled back.  But ‘Til the Band Comes In can feel like something neglected or unfinished, propped up at times.  It is as if a desperate conservative streak overcomes Walker as a specter of spiritual and physical weariness arises.  Rather than articulating the state of the world through his eyes he’s just caught up in the menial aspects of getting by.  His immediate path forward would be downhill.  This would be his last album to feature his own songwriting for some years.  Of course, hindsight has shown that he came back as strong as ever later on.

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

Bish Bosch

Scott WalkerBish Bosch 4AD CAD3220CD (2012)

The most amazing feat of Scott Walker’s later career has been to have the most unlikely popular audiences receive it so well.  Since Tilt in 1995 his music has adopted experimental, operatic elements that lack the syncopation that is foundational to pop music of the rock era.  The Drift added an increasingly ominous and dark tone to what already was frighteningly unique music.  With Bish Bosch, Walker is flirting again with syncopation, fitfully at times, but with its programmed drum beats and proto-metal electric guitar it provides a more direct link with (fairly) contemporary pop music than anything he’s released in nearly 30 years.  On top of that he’s able to pull together the resources to have orchestration on an album this “out”.  Yet, he still manages to have his sense of humor felt quite directly.  His previous album The Drift had surreal, absurdist lyrics like “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” (“Jolson and Jones”) but Bish Bosch goes for a more heady mix of lowbrow phrasings with lyrics like “I’ve severed my reeking gonads/ Fed them to your shrunken face” (“SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)”).  To pull all these elements together in a way that holds together and finds more than scattered audiences at the fringes is no mean feat, and it’s the mark of a master that Walker has done it, again.  There is definitely a brutality in the world of 2012 and Scott Walker seems to have his finger on that pulse in a way that is as unsettling and uncomfortable as the times themselves.  What Bish Bosch reveals, though, is a sense of hidden value in the grotesque, an affirming quality that with a lot of effort–and with the enormous cast of players here, that’s an understatement–people have the power to reclaim the very foundation of the grotesque and create from it a new context.  It’s quite telling that Walker’s approach means an engagement of the highbrow with the lowbrow, and that a gap between those audiences music be bridged.  Granted, he has not won over all listeners, but in a philosophical sense, he’s re-imagining the meaning and possibilities of the path he sets out upon.  It’s not just a different arrangement of the same old elements, but a bold new system of determining what is real and what is illusion.  That is to say that listening to this sort of music can change how to listen to other things, and change your perception of what you have already heard.  It seems the role of philosopher king suits Scott Walker well in his advancing years.