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Back Tracks: Scott Walker, Part 2 (1975-2014)

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Scott-Walker-b01Where Part 1 of our Back Tracks feature left Scott Walker, he was in a creatively barren period, cranking out albums of AM pop and country, a far cry from the Brel songs and even the Brill Building tearjerkers that characterized his best work. Having left the sublime pop symphonies and edgy chansons behind, he found inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. In 1975, The Walker Brothers reformed, much to the surprise of many. The group recorded the LP No Regrets, which they followed up with 1976’s Lines and 1978’s Nite Flights, all three for the GTO label. (All three titles were reissued in one compact box set by Sony U.K. in 2010.) The first two LPs were both distinguished by quality material from outside songwriters, including songs by old stalwarts Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and Mickey Newbury, and strong contributions by Boz Scaggs, Kris Kristofferson, Jesse Winchester and Janis Ian. But nobody could have been prepared for the third album.

Nite Flights was entirely self-written by the Walker Brothers, a dark, disquieting album that augured for Walker’s future recordings and set aside any notions of their former pop stardom. Scott’s four Nite Flights songs were strange, indeed: “Shutout,” “Fat Mama Kick,” “Nite Flights” and especially the morbid “The Electrician” all dispensed with traditional song form and any pretense of literal lyrics. Combining nightmarishly odd words with instrumentation ranging from wailing, feedback-laden guitar to even disco-style backing, Walker had discovered a new voice that would lead to the most polarizing, provocative part of his career.  He wouldn’t re-emerge as a recording artist, though, until 1984. Back Tracks follows Scott Walker’s unbelievable journey and transformation after the jump.

Scott - Climate

Climate of Hunter (Virgin, 1984 – reissued Virgin, 2006)

When Virgin Records signed Scott Walker, it’s unclear which Scott Walker the label believed it was signing. The Scott Walker on Climate of Hunter was unlike any previous Walker, rooted in the aural experiments of Nite Flights but taking them further, if still not as far as they would one day go. Much as Nite Flights nodded to the 1970s, Climate made its concessions to 1980s pop with the sound of its arrangements (keyboards, big drums, guitars), but that’s where any similarity ends. Walker only deigned to name three of the album’s seven tracks, labeling the other songs simply as “Track 5,” “Track 6,” etc. This merely hints at their obtuse nature. The first lyric heard on the album by a still strong-voiced Walker was “This is how you disappear;” no truer words were sung. Virgin may have pressured Walker for a single; he obliged with “Track 3,” featuring Billy Ocean (!) on harmony vocals and the closest thing on Climate to a chorus. The only cover version on Climate is a song penned by Tennessee Williams and Kenyon Hopkins for the 1959 movie The Fugitive Kind, a stark, bluesy song with guitar by Mark Knopfler. Scott Walker was willfully refusing a comeback of star proportions with this difficult-to-embrace record drawing on many of his favorite themes including death, depression, war and abuse. In a 1984 radio interview, he scorned his previous “sentimentality” and described his past records as “sins.” No such sentimentality crept into this distancing record. There was no turning back, and Climate of Hunter remained Scott Walker’s only LP of the 1980s.  It also was rumored to be the lowest-selling album in Virgin’s history, though this was never confirmed!

Scott - Tilt

Tilt (Fontana/Mercury, 1995)

Walker reappeared in 1993 with two songs released only in France to accompany Philomene Esposito’s film Toxic Affair. He then recorded Tilt, released two years later. If Climate of Hunter bore passing resemblance to pop/rock, Tilt bore no resemblance whatsoever. Some of its critics felt it bore no resemblance to music, period. (It actually might be described as in a similar vein to some of Tom Waits’ more avant-garde work, but with less melody and an even more horrific, clanging soundscape.) Willfully challenging the listener’s limits, Tilt is an unquestionably difficult album to get through. With a bleak worldview colored in disillusionment, tormented lyrics wailed by the singer and grotesque imagery matched by ugly, industrial soundscapes, Tilt is certainly not for the Walker fan yearning for another “Joanna” or even for “Angels of Ashes.” Truth told, “Fat Mama Kick” sounds quaint compared to anything on Tilt. What is to recommend? Tilt is clearly the work of an artist who cannot be bothered to be concerned with the opinions of either his fans or his record label, but an artist following his own muse to the nth degree. The intensity of Tilt is not for the faint of heart; fans would have been forgiven for wondering whether Walker actually viewed the world as depicted in these harrowing songs, virtually all of which abandon notions of traditional song structure and melody. Critic Dave Thompson found Tilt somewhere between Nico’s Marble Index and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Seeing as that much-maligned Reed project was once celebrated with deluxe reissues and a concert tour, the day for Tilt will likely come.

Pola X

Pola X (Barclay, 1999)

Walker followed Tilt with two songs that, shockingly, would have appealed to fans of the Walker of old. John Hillcoat’s 1996 film To Have and To Hold called on Walker for a recording of Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” and if his post-Tilt pained operatic style seemed out-of-place on this simple song off Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, it was a treat to hear Walker sing a familiar song once again. In 1999, he reunited with lyricist Don Black to record Black and David Arnold’s song “Only Myself to Blame” for the soundtrack of the James Bond film The World is Not Enough. This jazzy ballad (unfortunately cut from the film) is a fine tip of the hat to John Barry, the longtime Bond composer whom Arnold had the unenviable task of following. Too few heard the song, but it remains a thrill to hear Walker in the kind of moody, lounge setting he afforded many Barry songs in the past. The movie association would continue with Walker’s composition of the score to Leos Karax’s film Pola X. His score is somber, stately and modernist, largely instrumental but with some surreal vocals. It’s not nearly as dark as Tilt but shares similarly avant-garde, minimalist leanings. The resulting soundtrack to Pola X may be for completists only, but it’s an interesting, austere listen.

Scott Box

In Five Easy Pieces (Mercury, 2003 – reissued 2006)

Walker had been previously anthologized, first with 1981’s Julian Cope-compiled underground LP Fire Escape in the Sky, then with 1990’s authorized Boy Child – The Best Of:  1967-1970. But this sprawling box set expands upon both releases as “Five different routes into the heart of Scott Walker”: In My Room, with “The complete bedsit dramas, including the kitchen sink”; Where’s The Girl? with “songs of a lady, love and loss”; An American in Europe containing “home and away: songs from Europe and America”; This is How You Disappear with “the darkest hour is just before dawn: 15 big hits” (note the irony!) and Scott on Screen, with “music from and for films.” While true to form, Walker doesn’t include all of his hits (“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” is glaringly absent), he doesn’t turn his back on the Walker Brothers, who appear on numerous tracks throughout. In Five Easy Pieces is a fine introduction to the man’s many faces. The first disc is an amazing trove of character studies whether from Walker’s own pen or that of Randy Newman (“I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore”); the second contains hidden gems like the Brothers’ superb pre-Carpenters version of “Hurting Each Other.” Tony Hatch’s “Just Say Goodbye” joins his “Joanna” on this disc, which closes out with two songs written and produced by Walker for German artist Ute Lemper in 2000. CD 3 offers seven of the Brel songs alongside selections from Climate of Hunter and Tilt; CD 4 primarily draws upon his post-Philips days. The final disc rounds up a number of Scott’s soundtrack contributions, including hard-to-find singles from both his early and late periods.

This box set is a classy, well-annotated and lovingly-compiled tribute to an ever-evolving artist, and makes as good a case is possible for the late period works which are impenetrable to so many listeners. Hearing 40 years of Walker in one place makes it easier to trace a line from Point A to Point B, albeit a sometimes-twisted line. The original 2003 pressing had an error in which one of the discs eliminated an entire channel of music; it was reissued and corrected in 2006 in a new package. This new version is distinguishable by being in a hardbound book format which also added more complete liner notes in a box-sized 54-page book. The new edition’s cover art also lacks the washed-out look of the 2003 set. The 2006 edition (984 021-9) is the one to purchase. A fine companion to this set is Mercury’s impressive 5-disc Walker Brothers box, Everything Under the Sun, released in 2006 (983 984-4), containing the complete studio recordings of the group plus a number of unreleased tracks. (Their live Japanese concert album remains the “missing link” to collecting their complete works on CD, but I might save them for a future Back Tracks!)

Scott - Classics

Classics and Collectibles (Mercury, 2005)

This 2005 anthology boasts over 20 new-to-CD tracks including many of the sides from the never-reissued Philips LPs. Its 45 tracks are divided up into 22 “Classics” (including an unreleased alternate vocal take of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”) and 23 “Collectibles” including those aforementioned lost songs from The Moviegoer, Songs from His TV Series and Any Day Now. Simply put, this volume is essential with the first disc to entice the casual fan and the second aimed at the serious collector.

Scott - Drift

The Drift (4AD, 2006)

Some 11 years later, Scott Walker finally followed up Tilt with an equally severe album once again bringing his nightmares into sharp focus. Over nearly 70 minutes, Walker employs what he has described as “blocks of sound” and modular lyric writing to create a gripping, sometimes-hallucinogenic, and always-frightening vision of America and the world, past and present. His answer to 9/11 was in the form of “Jesse,” referring to one Jesse Garon Presley, the stillborn twin brother of Elvis. The lyric correlates Jesse’s death to 9/11, mixing references to both – “tall, tall tower” and “ruins,” “six feet of fetus” and “Jesse, are you listening?” ending with cries of “I’m the only one left alive” presumably as sung by Elvis and a World Trade Center survivor. Other songs were no less oblique. “Jolson and Jones” lyrically alludes to the songs of Al Jolson and Allan Jones, father of Scott’s onetime favorite singer, Jack, in an eerie sound collage. (You may never hear Allan’s “Donkey Serenade” the same way again!) “Clara” is an impressionistic look at the executions of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, although as with all of Walker’s subjects, they are only referred to in a dreamlike fashion. “The Escape” grotesquely twists the familiar Looney Tunes theme into a demonic trance with repeated intonations of “What’s up, doc?” while “Buzzers” is even more freakish. This piece most likely tells of a man being cooked and eaten and features the sound of Serbian leader Milosevic on a radio. “Audience” is a reflection on celebrity replete with children’s cries, as in those children whom one would sacrifice in pursuit of celebrity. The Drift isn’t for those easily shaken by sound, even if its mysterious aura was somewhat dissipated by a scene from the fine documentary 30 Century Man in which we see a middle-aged, baseball cap-clad Walker instructing a musician on how to properly bang a slab of meat as a musical instrument for the rhythm track of “Clara.” Both Walker and his percussionist seem acutely aware of how absurd it must seem to the cameraman and audience. But if such outré weirdness is for you, by all means, give The Drift and its disturbing dissonances a chance.

Scott - And Who

And Who Shall Go to the Ball?  And What Shall Go to the Ball? (4AD, 2007)

Later in 2006, Walker contributed the song “Darkness” to the 4AD album Plague Songs, with each track musicalizing one of the plagues. But Walker’s most recent full musical statement is this brief disc containing around 25 minutes’ worth of music over four movements, written to accompany a ballet by the British dance company CandoCo. The music is expectedly noisy and avant-garde in a modern classical style. Walker does not make any vocal interjections on this disc which continues in the foreboding vein he’s been pursuing intently since Tilt.

After this release, Walker was heard singing on the track “The Big Sleep” from Bat for Lashes’ 2009 album Two Suns.  He didn’t return with another proper solo album, however, until 2012 and Bish Bosch – his most extreme and divisive record to date.

Scott - BB

Bish Bosch (4AD, 2012)

The conclusion of the trilogy that began with Tilt and continued to The Drift, Bish Bosch might be the strangest of the three albums as well as the most “difficult” recording of Walker’s career. Upon its release, the wags at U.K. newspaper The Guardian posed the question, “‘Were you hoping this might be the album that would see Scott Walker return to lush, beautiful balladry? Well, tough.’” Over nine relentless tracks, Walker deploys every weapon in his arsenal – ranging from slashing knives to a full symphony orchestra and even the sound of farts. (Seriously.) These harsh soundscapes are in service of some of the most wide-ranging imagery of Walker’s career. Khrushchev, God, and Attila the Hun all show up as characters in the artist’s fragmentary wordplay which is packed with cryptic references that might lead you straight to Google. A streak of dark, sometimes off-color humor cuts through the near-operatic bleakness, though – not just lyrically but via the music itself, such as the farts on “Corps de Blah.”   One never loses sight of the fact, however, that Walker has carefully crafted all of the weirdness like a master orchestrator. “Epizootics!” incorporates a Hawaiian folk melody and a drum chant into its sonic tapestry, and “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” remains compelling for its 20+-minute length. The tense Bish Bosch plays like a collection of aural mini-movies, with just fleeting appearances of beauty or traditional melody. It’s often horrific but also oddly captivating; Walker would take his cinematic allusions – as well as the metallic guitar sounds and ambient settings – even further on his next album, Soused.

Scott Walker - Soused

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

When Scott Walker announced that his latest project would be a collaborative album with California’s drone-metal band Sunn O))), it’s not exactly accurate to say that fans were in shock. After the aural assault of Bish Bosch, hadn’t Walker’s fans come to expect shock, at the very least? So the real surprise was that critics bandied about the word “accessible,” not in and of itself, but in the context of “his most accessible album in years.”

Walker described entering the recording studio as walking into a “furnace of sound,” and its blazing intensity carries into the finished album. Fantasy and reality blur on Soused, a dreamlike (or perhaps, more accurately, nightmarish) suite of five angst-ridden tracks, none shorter than eight minutes’ length. It’s challenging, primal and raw, assembled more like a sculpture of sound than as conventional “music.” But Walker, who penned all five tracks, has allowed some song-like structures to take flight. On the opening “Brando,” snatches of melody emerge triumphantly in a soundscape of slashing guitars (some, shockingly, in a power-guitar style not unfamiliar to classic rock radio) and a steady if unsettling pulse, with Walker’s fragmented lyrical style conjuring up violence on the western vista. The impressionistic lyrics abound with images of masochism and cinematic references to Marlon Brando movies like One-Eyed Jacks, The Wild One, The Chase and Reflections in a Golden Eye. As for Walker’s vocals, they’re frayed and disembodied yet still commanding.

As a youth, Walker appeared on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Pipe Dream. On “Herod 2014,” he renounces what might once have been among his favorite things, referring to “No raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens!” Complemented by Sunn O)))’s hypnotic drones, Walker wails an ominous refrain of “She’s hidden her babies away” in this tale of a woman protecting her child from King Herod’s vile decree. The track is decorated with electronic effects recalling sirens, foghorns, and even the squawking of birds. “Bull” juxtaposes clattering, industrial sounds with flashes of absurdity (the repeated musical wails of “Bump the beaky!”) and humor (“leapin’ like a Riverdancer’s nuts!”), while “Fetish” might be the most extreme track. The closing song, “Lullaby,” was previously recorded by German vocalist Ute Lemper and reworked here. It incorporates William Byrd’s classical composition “My Sweet Little Darling,” but as one might expect from Walker at this stage, it’s a rather malevolent lullaby only for the least faint of heart children! Should you take the plunge and truly immerse yourself in this album, you might feel Soused, too, on this otherworldly experiment in sound and drama – drunk on the singular, dark and unsettling vision of Scott Walker.

In Conclusion…

What shall the future bring for this uncompromising artist?  It’s hard to say, as we can only expect the unexpected where he’s concerned. But we can be certain of at least a couple of things: his work will continue to inspire new disciples (joining the ranks of David Bowie, Marc Almond, Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker, among others) and if a new recording comes our way, it will be uniquely Scott Walker.  One of The Walker Brothers’ biggest hits began, “Loneliness is the cloak you wear…”  Since that epochal moment, Scott Walker has pursued exploration of those dark, lonely avenues truly like no other.

Written by Joe Marchese

October 23, 2014 at 13:45

Posted in Features, Reissues, Scott Walker

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