In Remembrance of Scott Walker
Scott Walker’s legacy is reserved for a place few musicians see. His work --which spans covers of Belgian singer Jacques Brel, four self-titled albums, multiple stints with the Walker Brothers (none of whom were brothers), and a series of left-turn experimentalist masterpieces-- struggles to find a parallel.
After launching his career with The Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, Scott Walker became a teen idol about as fast as anyone did in the 60s. The group was touted as the next Beatles, the group that could claim the throne, and with Walker as their unintentional leader, they had nowhere to go but up. But, as seen in the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Walker was never interested in money. Traditional success meant little to his broad palette of classical composers, baroque crooners and cabaret-like arrangements: his sights were set on stranger things. In his first solo outing, titled Scott, he composed only three of the 12 songs. By the end of his self-titled series in 1969, he would be the sole writer. Walker’s solo success cannot be mentioned without “Montague Terrace (In Blue).” One of three original compositions on Scott, the classical-influenced piece put the album at #3 on the UK charts, where he was always more popular than in his homeland of America. Showcasing his remarkable taste as an arranger, it isn’t the most vocally impressive of his many works, but contains the narrator quality that would go on to populate tracks like “The Seventh Seal” and “It’s Raining Today.”
Following Scott with Scott 2, Walker began to gain traction, and with Scott 3 cemented his place in a self-made pantheon. Of the more remarkable things about Walker is how is early work demands a unique ear; one untainted by the modern pop of the 60s, and today, drawing the listener to a time when philosophers questioned and Ingmar Bergman shot death playing chess with a knight. It undoubtedly makes his work difficult (which it would never cease to be), but as with many great artists, the rewards are worth the initial re-calibration.
“Boy Child,” off Scott 4, slowly unfurls with a meditative swoon, pin-pointing every style Walker dabbled in on his 1967-69 run of albums. Reverb laced vocals, panoramic strings: there’s a reason Scott 4 is considered his greatest achievement by many, even without mentioning “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime).” Hit with financial disappointments, however, Walker’s label encouraged him to return to classics, with the promise that he could eventually come back to the sound he was pining for on Scott’s 1-4. This promise was never fulfilled, and Walker spent the majority of the 70s churning out studio-mandated standards.
Sales did not improve, even with a return to the dynamic that made him a star, The Walker Brothers. With three albums between 1975-78, the group performed more of the same country rock that kept Walker on life support in the first half of the decade, providing a modest hit in No Regrets’s title track. When news came that the label was going out of business, the Brothers were given a rare opportunity: a chance to try anything, to take off the gloves for a moment in hopes that their work might be crazy enough to satisfy the public, or at least themselves. It was an opportunity to fulfill the promise made to Walker in 1970, and on 1978’s Nite Flights, he followed through.
Among his first original compositions since 1970’s ‘Til the Band Comes In, the title track and “The Electrician” are cited as major inspirations for the 80s post-punk craze. Never one to cut corners, it would be another six years before Walker returned with new material, in the form of a solo album, Climate of Hunter. Accompanied by a perfectly-80s music video and song, the album included songs titled “Track Three,” and “Track Five.” At eight tracks and 31 minutes, it wasn’t a conventional comeback, but Climate of Hunter plays one of many important roles in Walker’s career: setting up for the next phase, a series of albums that would utilize his musical palette in shocking, often grotesque ways. The rolling shuffle of “Rawhide” signals the string-heavy stylings of 1995’s Tilt, with notes held to ear-rattling lengths. While Climate and Tilt sound almost nothing like his 60s work, there was no saying Walker hadn’t dabbled in experimentalism before. Scott 3’s “It’s Raining Today” is offset by a single, elongated string note, sitting opposite the pleasant and rainy-day themed tune. It’s very Twin Peaks, and a style Walker would reclaim and strengthen on his next full length solo album, Tilt.
Arriving after yet another hiatus (a theme in Walker’s career), Tilt struck a nerve. Loved and hated by critics, it has now settled in its rightful place as a postmodernist, melody-less, daring classic. Walker’s voice is aged, apparent from the start of his “Do I hear, 21?” chant in “Farmer in the City,” the most accessible track on Tilt, and like a fine wine, all the better for it. Whereas the 60s ended in a struggle for creative control, the 70s a battle for relevance, and steps toward a comeback in the 80s, the 90s swaddled Walker in welcoming cloth, the kind that would accept whatever odd style he was willing to give. Sounds turn inward on “The Cockfighter,” and hardly let loose again: Tilt is Walker’s dream, his apparent nightmare of buzzing and twisting and machine-guzzling. Tilt may draw from industrial rock and the orchestral compositions Walker relied on in the past, but the aura it creates is one hardly seen in modern music. On his next album, The Drift, Walker would continue to explore his wandering rivers with darker, more surprising tools (the meat-punching percussion of “Clara,” the jump-scare strings of “Cue”): his ambition was only beginning to bloom.
Later seen as part of a trilogy, Tilt gave way to The Drift, arguably Tilt’s superior, and then to Bish Bosch. Released in 2012, an album touting his shortest tracklist at nine songs, and his longest album length at over an hour and ten minutes; largely thanks to album centerpiece "SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” which is over 20 minutes in length. While lacking the unexpected qualities of Tilt or The Drift, Bish Bosch was a fitting cap on the wild and engaging journey that was Walker’s solo work.
The last decade of Scott Walker’s musical career was coloured by collaboration. First, in 2014, with experimental metal group Sunn O))): Soused, which totalled 50 minutes in five songs, stripped away much of the ambient, formless songwriting of his work in favor of, predictably, metal. Massive riffs, world-ending tone, the kind of strumming that evokes volcanic tension. The collaboration gave way to a fruitful meeting of minds between Walker and filmmaker Brady Corbet, whom Walker composed the scores to The Childhood of a Leader and Vox Lux for. Though these were the most mainstream projects Walker had worked on, he was no novice to film scoring. Walker had previously worked on the Léos Carax film Pola X, described as a grueling and never-ending series of sessions between Walker and the director. The original scores for Childhood and Vox Lux do not have that labored-over, grease-in-the-engine quality; Vox Lux in particular draws more from the work of Jóhann Jóhannsson, incorporating vocal samples as a base rather than strings. As his last completed work, the score for Vox Lux is a curious cap on an incredibly diverse career, filled with enough genre switches and absences to rival the greatest of composers.
Walker, though he always appeared as low-key as possible, sporting either a pair of dark glasses in the 60s or a baseball cap in the latter half of his life, was nothing short of a symphony: a man whose life traveled in booming thunder and massive strokes. Close examination reveals a plethora of individually moving parts, each one wildly unique and fervent in its purpose, collected to form a peerless body of music. For his work, we are thankful, and for his life, we continue to celebrate. In further remembrance, we have selected personal favorites of his, one from each decade of his recording career, in an attempt to trace the sweeping quality of his influence on music.
1960s: “30 Century Man”
In a decade of rise, fall, Jacques Brel covers and the emergence of a startling new voice, it’s the folky, demo-like cut from Scott 3 that has left the greatest impression on Walker’s career. It’s 90 seconds long, and features Walker alongside a jangly acoustic guitar. There aren’t many lyrics, but what’s there is nothing short of poetry: “See the dwarves and see the giants” beckons out like a broadcast to an unknown generation of opportunists, followed by the question “Which one would you choose to be?” A challenge rests in all of Walker’s greatest work, whether in the quality of the lyrics, the smoothness of his baritone, or, in his late 90s-early 2000s work, in the music itself, but presented as an “American Pie”-esque jam, “30 Century Man” is a special moment in the self-titled series. Released at the peak of his 60s career, and before the glorious Scott 4, the song is a low-key marvel: it inspired a documentary, has been featured in a Wes Anderson film, and remains one of the most hauntingly poetic tales of self-preservation Walker recorded.
1970s: “The Electrician”
One of the most secretly-influential songs of the 1970s and 80s, the fourth cut on the Walker Brothers’s 1978 album Nite Flights heralded a sea change for Scott Walker. His first return to original recording since 1970’s panned ‘Til the Band Comes In, Nite Flights contained four original Walker compositions, each equal in their differences from the group that contained them. The Walker Brothers spent most of the 70s attempting to earn back the good-will of fans, through questionable means: while indulging in country-pop more than was necessary, the slow-hand drone of Walker’s “The Electrician” may as well be the invention of sound for the band. Foreshadowing not only his future career track on 1984’s Climate of Hunter and 1995’s Tilt, but the post-punk rock of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno, “The Electrician”’s importance in Walker’s catalogue cannot be overstated. A shifting melody, whirlwind strings, and a lacerating vocal line at the transition point, it’s an entire career packed into one track, highlighting the wild lands Walker would travel to, while honoring the classical roots that allowed him to go.
Climate of Hunter
There wasn’t much in the way of groundbreaking music for Walker in the 80s: or even music at all. His lone album of the decade, Climate of Hunter, was short, sweet, and featured one of his liveliest album covers. In terms of songs, it’s neither a goldmine nor a barren field, but a collection of loosely formed experiments he would perform much better one decade later. “Rawhide” is the best of the lot, complete with very 80s-sounding bass, chilling bells and whistles, and a low-key drum beat, it’s far from the confrontative sketches he would go on to, but it does have a boisterous chorus that reminds of “Nite Flights,” a radio hit in some parallel dimension. “Rawhide” and the album it occupies are instantly identifiable as products of the decade, and for that, they stand in an odd place for Walker: predictable.
1990s: “Bouncer see Bouncer…”
A personal favorite, the “Spared, I’ve been spared” refrain never ceases to haunt. The booming percussion and rattling noises that fill the sparsely arranged “Bouncer see Bouncer…” provide a rare break from the chaos that is Tilt, Walker’s one and only album of the 90s. His first full stroke of experimental genius, the album is filled with searing strings and glitchy industrial beats, all of which force “Bouncer see Bouncer...” into a unique field. At once tranquil and collected, it’s a beautiful showcase for Walker’s melody, and a terrifying exercise in prolonged tension that builds to its own kind of payoff.
Fervor, terror, annihilation: “Cue” was as indulgent as Walker ever got. Plodding like an announcer for the end of days, a subtly stripping instrumental gives way around the mid-point to the most jarring, terrifying listening experience I have yet to have. Like the best frights, “Cue” sets the listener up for its climax, but has plenty of fun deciding how to perform it. It’s far from a pleasant experience before the sudden whirlwind, prolonged in typical Walker fashion, but it elicits response. There is no substitute for songs like “Cue,” even in Walker’s own discography, for it’s a style he invented and perfected in this sublime 10-minute journey.
The 20-minute cut from Walker’s Bish Bosch, Walker’s only solo album of the decade, is a tour de force of operatic maximalism. Beginning with music-less spoken word, the track is an album unto itself, absorbing the listener with frequent changes, a full orchestra, and nonsensical lyrics. Walker even gets in some screams halfway through! This is also the track that includes the lyric “I’ve severed my reeking gonads/Fed them to your shrunken face.” Walker was 69 at the time of releasing Bish Bosch, and with the grandeur of "SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” proved he still had plenty to say, often revealing more about himself than he ever had.
Thank you, Scott Walker.