Tracing the Footsteps of Scott Walker

Scott Walker is a truly atypical musician of our time. Albums like 1995’s Tilt and 2006’s The Drift exhibit a weirdness far more distinct and separate from the forced stylistic oddities associated with most so-called independent and alternative acts of the contemporary scene. His recently announced, as of now untitled record with label 4AD is sure to continue the trend . With the album possibly dropping before the year’s end, it’s hard to make sense of just what Scott Walker was up to across a discography as varied and unpredictable as any other in pop music history. Indeed, his uniqueness comes from much more than merely “sounding weird,” it comes from the sense that understanding his work as a coherent body–as one might with the Beatles or David Lynch–is perhaps impossible. He may be not only one of the truly strangest musicians of our time, but one of the truly incommensurable.

Many artists have produced records just as disturbing and unlistenable to the general populace, but few artists have produced an oeuvre as puzzling as Walker’s. When trying to define a common factor in his music, the mysterious “it” that underlies his protean musical identity continuously remains elusive. If there is one motif that can be applied to Walker, it is that he is a drifter. Throughout a varied and sparse career he has journeyed to many distinct musical places and adopted many contradictory musical personas: the shy, alluring pop star, the crooning swaggerer in European style, the unprolific genius of the avant-garde. Perhaps he purposely sifts through these personalities in an existential quest for meaning, perhaps he merely flows with the tide of a consciousness unfettered. Perhaps the best way to find out is to retrace his steps and see where they lead.

Scott Walker’s journey began when Noel Scott Engel joined the Walker Brothers in 1964. Adopting the last name Walker along with his two bandmates as an image stunt, he served as bassist and backup vocalist for the pop group, led by guitarist and then-lead singer John Maus (not to be confused with the Minnesota solo artist and keyboardist for Panda Bear and Ariel Pink). Walker had signed on for a supporting role, but, after a ballad required a deeper voice than John’s, he was thrust into the forefront. The group relocated to England and highlighted Walker’s baritone on the singles “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore),” which topped the British charts while also fairing respectively well in the United States. “Make It Easy on Yourself” casts Walker as an unsuccessful, abandoned lover who encourages the woman leaving him, singing, “Don’t try to spare my feelings / Just tell me that we’re through.” He acknowledges that “breaking up is so very hard to do” and would rather abandon pretense. While the narrator’s selflessness is perhaps admirable, the story is rather pathetic and cheesy, a fact emphasized by Walker’s melancholic vocals. The message of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” proves just as reliant and pitiful, as Walker laments the loneliness, emptiness, and literal lack of sun in a world “without love.” It is hard to reconcile this girl-melting balladry with the haunted detachment of his later recordings, but his lovesick pop star persona was limited. The position and the material were thrust upon him when his voice sent the American band to the top of the English charts in a bizarro British Invasion.

Album Cover for Scott

Walker had to be conscious of how arbitrary his musical identity had become, because when the Brothers drifted apart and Walker released the excellent string of Scott albums (numbered 1 through 4), the results were drastically different. With the release of Scott, Walker was still developing as a composer and a long way away from the heights he would reach with his avant-garde material, but the early compositions and new covers showcased Walker’s completely new musical identity.

His early originals, such as “Montague Terrace (In Blue),” could not be more different in sentiment from the pop hits he had been provided with previously. His baroque stylings paint a foreboding, almost grotesque picture. Lines like “The little clock’s stopped ticking now / We’re swallowed in the stomach rue” and “His bloated belching figure stomps / He may crash through the ceiling soon” present a narrative more akin to a Flaubert novel than anything in American popular music. It shows moments of the dark (but less narrative-based) directions Walker would eventually take.

Album Cover for Scott 2

Walker also embraced his new found freedom to select his own material, leading to perhaps his most famous recordings – English-language renditions of the Chansons by the great Jacque Brel, who dominates the first Scott and to a lesser extent Scott 2. Brel’s “Mathilde” and “Amsterdam”“Jackie” provided Walker with triumphant bookends to his solo debut. Walker clearly embraced the expatriate status he had gained with the Walker Brothers while also employing the knowledge of identity’s malleability the experience had taught him. Gone is the somewhat spineless pretty boy, replaced by a reinvigorated, worldly crooner. It is a more European Scott Walker, but there is still something “Hollywood” about him when his version of is compared to the Brel original. Brel’s version is theatrical and emotive, often rushed, as Brel drips with sweat and passion, whereas Walker’s delivery is flawless and his performance slick and polished; he drips with a cool confidence and swagger of a decidedly American flavor. The polish gives Walker a spectacular shine, but ultimately his presentation comes off as scripted and produced compared to the manic Brel.

The choice to record “Jackie” especially highlights this fact, as the translated lyrics  are significantly different from Brel’s original and seem to be paraphrased to better describe Walker’s situation. While he then had gained the control over his musical identity that he previously lacked, he was still consciously milking a charming stage presence. The narrator of “Jackie” describes himself in constantly shifting terms and a variety of hypothetical names. One moment he contemplates a life as Antonio, the singer and burner of bridges, and in another he is handsome Jack, the opium dealer. These different pseudonyms strangely are an apt summary and prophecy of the various trajectories his career had taken and would continue to take. As the American Brel, he would gradually stop playing covers and do more original compositions, mastering a certain brand of baroque pop all his own that was dark and intellectual with a voice not quite crooner and not quite pop star.

Album Cover for Scott 3

However, the transience of life and identity still permeates the material. “It’s Raining Today” opens Scott 3, the first solo album to not begin with a Brel song (though it still ends with three consecutively before giving way to the completely Walker-penned Scott 4). The narrator contemplates moments passed and passing and even in his present moment cannot ignore how ephemeral that moment is, singing, “It’s raining today / And I’m just about to forget the train window girl.” He hangs onto his memories but knows they are ultimately to be lost, for they “descend on [his] windowpane” as the raindrops. The narrator is not regretful, indeed he recognizes that he has already “hung around here too long.” The girl becomes a “cold trembling leaf” in a brilliant line that recalls William Carlos Williams, and the narrator moves on, knowing ultimately all that connects these particular moments of consciousness is the incessant rain.

In another of his greatest compositions, “30 Century Man,” Walker comments on the mutability of identity in his own words, recognizing that the difference between a “dwarf” and a “giant” is ultimately a matter of which one you would “choose to be.” However, Walker takes an important step here that differentiates his path from that of the mere identity-shifter. Walker recognizes his musical identity as ultimately dependent on the audience and fame, and thus its nature will always be fleeting, spoiling or eroding over time. Walker ironically proposes solutions of refrigeration and plastic wrap so one might emerge in “a hundred years or so” without losing their precious freshness (that is, their status as “giants”): “You can freeze like a 30 century man… Play it cool and Saran wrap all you can.” Walker had clearly become disenchanted with his newest persona and with the very concept of personas to begin with. In the crucial step of Walker’s career, he decided his journey was not a matter of finding personas, but destroying them. And his first step to free himself from perception was just that: destructive.

Album Cover for Scott 4

Rather than reinvent himself, Walker decided he would stop playing the game and the result was the lost years of his career. Following the all-original Scott 4, Walker included five uninspired covers on 1970’s ‘Til the Band Comes In before releasing four consecutive solo albums devoid of original material and quality. The Walker Brothers then reunited for two mediocre country-tinged records, 1975’s No Regrets and 1976’s Lines.

Walker was clearly going through the motions, releasing middle of the road pop music with little creativity and not recording a song of his own for eight years. Recognizing the fate his musical identity would suffer without the aid of futuristic Saran wrapping, he had decided to limit his exposure. Whatever part of the “real” Scott Walker that had been available to audiences was now hidden behind his all-business, showtune-belting stand-in.

However, in 1978, the Walker Brothers’ label GTO Records faced imminent demise (ultimately being sold to CBS), and Walker and his bandmates saw an opportunity to do whatever they wanted, without regards to sales figures or the wants of studio officials. The result was Nite Flights, an album that sold poorly by the group’s standards but reinvigorated Walker creatively. Instead of a true group effort, Nite Flights consists of essentially 3 short solo efforts by each member. Walker himself provided the first four songs, by far the best material ever released under the Walker Brothers name. Walker embraced electronic instrumentation to form difficult and morose soundscapes and paired them with lyrics divorced from accepted structure or popular clichés. Even the artistically ambitious narratives of his Scott albums seem conventional by comparison.

Album Cover for Nite Flights

In “The Electrician,” Walker demonstrates his more contemporarily poetic approach through absurdist chant (“Baby it’s slow / When lights go low / There’s no help, no” repeats the song’s mantra, “The dark hip falls / Screaming ‘Oh you mambos, kill me’”) and non-sequitur (“If I jerk the handle / You’ll die in your dreams”). In “Nite Flights,” Walker’s lines begin to lack even subjects, let alone narratives, as with the line “the moving has come through.” The action itself has become the grammatical subject – Walker describes not movement but movement’s realization, into a world of “dark dug up by dogs” and “the raw meat fist you choke” that verges on the grotesque. Walker sings these lines throughout the record in a swirling, atonal moan – the voice of a melting witch.

These dark directions all culminate in the Scott Walker our contemporary time has come to know (or fail to know): the Walker of Tilt and The Drift. Being the full realization of Walker’s drift through persona after persona, he abandoned the contexts and assurances (that linger in even the strangest of music) to the greatest extent possible. The established standards of pop music structure, orchestration, lyrical clichés, narrative, discernible meaning, and expectation are largely ignored. There are narratives to be found, but they are largely narratives of image. Tilt’s opener, “Farmer in the City,” references and appropriates Italian director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini (specifically his poem “One of the Many Epilogs”). Its exquisite delivered stanzas (“And I used to be a citizen, / I never felt the pressure. / I knew nothing of the horses, / Nothing of the thresher”) mark Walker’s transition from artistically minded lyricist to true poet.

Album Cover of Tilt

The Drift, written over an astounding eleven-year period, occupies an even darker place than Tilt: extreme dynamic shifts, disturbing lyrical subjects, and the percussion of a man punching meat. The most distinct quality of these records however, remains Walker’s voice. Once a glamorous force “decked out like a Christmas tree” in the style of the hypothetical grandmother of “Jackie,” it has been stripped of ornament, seeming to emerge from nowhere in particular, least of all from a man, and least of all from Scott Walker – a man who now embraces the emptiness and loneliness once so feared in “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).” In Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, an essential documentary that offers a far more complete and direct picture than this article could ever hope to, Walker speaks to the importance of words on his albums which he describes as “the phenomenon of the words coming out of silence.” In Walker’s struggle to divorce himself from context, to become a lone man singing, he realizes the full truth of that wish. Such a man inhabits a world of silence and without context he is without meaning, he is nothing in and of himself but fundamentally alone. He is forced to emerge into the world and in that emergence Walker captures the essence of his journey. Of course, the idea that one can ever understand Scott Walker is a dangerous assumption to make. Perhaps once thought musically lost, he reappeared to tell us of our folly, singing “This night you are mistaken / I’m a farmer in the city.” Where he takes us next is unknown, but it is sure to be elsewhere than we expect the path to lead.

Album Cover of The Drift

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Devin William Daniels

(DWD plays guitar in State College post-punk band Dead Channel and writes essays for THE BOMBER JACKET.)

Comments

  1. Great article, any thoughts on Walker’s atmospheric departure album “Climate of Hunter” ?

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