October 24, 2016

Scott Walker - Scott 4, 1969


Very deep love for this record, and a very big crush on Scott Walker (no, not that Scott Walker). Walker’s career has been wholly singular, and it’s impossible to accurately describe him, his work, or the thematic ties between such seemingly disparate records without listening to the music itself to make sense of it all. Walker started out in an LA-based pop trio called the Walker Brothers, though confusingly Scott Walker was born Noel Scott Engel, another member of the group was named John Maus (no, not that John Maus), and all three used Walker as their stage names—though for Scott, it bore out over a long and strange career. The group attained enough chart success in the UK that they were briefly considered a sort of inverse Beatles export, with screaming mobs of fans and a Tiger Beat cover to prove it.

As their brief window of fame closed, Scott Walker had embarked on a series of solo records, all called Scott, and all vessels for dark, heavily orchestrated and meticulously arranged pop. Though the music felt traditional and baroque enough to be almost regressive—this was the 60s, after all—the subject matter of the songs was dark and heavily referential. Walker wrote about Joseph Stalin, venereal disease, poverty, addiction, child abuse, and Bergman movies, and he sung the songs in a theatrical, almost Sinatra-esque baritone that belied their subject matter. The joke was always on us: Walker was able to pass off drippingly sentimental delivery as sincerity while barely masking his biting cynicism. His music appealed to the elderly, to the suburban, to those who wanted to cling to tradition as the world and its sounds were being lit on fire. Walker was the Carpenters’ evil twin, with a similarly surgical approach to arrangement and production, and the Bacharach pedigree to back it up. I imagine that Van Dyke Parks, sharing a penchant for thematic exploitation of traditional orchestration, was a fan. Leonard Cohen too.

But for Walker, the real god was Jacques Brel, Belgian master of theatrical showmanship and literary lyricism, and arbiter of chanson as the world knew it. Brel paved the way for Walker’s Trojan horse smuggling of a tortured psyche under a palatable, market-friendly genre. Walker covered Brel nine times on the first three Scott records, with 4 serving as his first entirely self-written release, and it was arguably the best and strangest of his 60s releases. Despite the weight of Walker's persona bearing down on it, 4 attains glimpses of very direct beauty—the weightless "Boy Child" comes to mind—and it readily winks at Morricone's spaghetti Americana. Yet when 4 failed to chart, unlike all his prior releases, Walker asked his label to delete it from their catalog, tried to swing more commercial, failed, and churned out a slew of half-hearted records just to get out of contract. He then all but disappeared for twenty years, reemerging in 1995 with the left-field Tilt as challenging and abstract proof that he had finally allowed his inner demons to break from the confines of polite genre. 2006's even more mutinous The Drift was my introductions to Walker when I was 16—it was the most explicitly avant-garde record I had ever heard—so I can’t listen to Scott 4 without hearing the early inklings of sonic assault, and I love it.


3 comments:

  1. Funnily enough I find Scott 4 more consistent than his previous three albums but not quite as risky as 3. The arrangements are less heavy and several songs (The Seventh Seal, Angels of Ashes, Boy Child) are built pretty much as mantras rather than sticking to the usual verse-chorus structure - those ingredients do enhance the languid feel of the songs but (in my opinion) that's not enough of a natural link to Scott's tortured lyrics. An appropriate example is "The Old Man's Back Again" mixing a light groove that wouldn't have been out of place in one of David Axelrod's early albums with lyrics that could hardly be angrier or more sarcastic.

    I do think, therefore, that 3 has got more elements that point forward to Tilt: dissonance (totally absent in 4), more extreme contrasts in dynamics and arrangements, songs with a more rhapsodic structure and also more detours ("30th Century Man" could be seen as an ancestor to "Rosary", and the grotesque histrionism of "Patriot" could be traced back to the exaggeratedly triumphant "We Came Through").

    At its side I see 4 more like an short, insular album with more of a resemblance to Climate of Hunter - both albums hint at something without entirely revealing it.

    Climate of Hunter is such a good album as well... I still have to find another platter that takes all the ingredients of 80s mainstream music and rearranges them in a similar way into two impossibly dense and menacing sides, of barely 15 minutes each, that seem like two dry runs of the same basic template.

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    1. thank you for such thoughtful feedback! it was hard to pick just one of the scotts. a couple other people have reached out to suggest i spend more time with his 70s and 80s stuff, especially climate of the hunter, so i'll definitely give it a few good listens. cheers!

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  2. My pleasure!

    I haven't listened to his early 70s albums; the first two comeback albums by the Walker Brothers are a pleasant listen (funny to hear them with that little tinge of 70s sleaze).

    "Nite Flights" is even more so - the songs by John and Gary are perfunctory but they do transpire a crawling anger that sets them apart from other MOR stuff of its time, and Scott's songs are smashing: the first ones merge near-disco rhythms with dissonance (in "Fat Mama Kick" it's not as much dissonance as plain distortion), wagnerian intensity and voices that follow a melodic style completely removed from any earlier music done by either of them, and that also seem totally detached from the rest of the mix. The jewel of the crown comes afterwards with "The Electrician", the first true taster of "Tilt": the already scary music, changing from nightmarish, still dissonance to lush romantic strings and back, gets even worse when reading the sadistic, disconnected lyrics.

    I think, though, that "Climate of Hunter" is still an improvement over it: the arrangements aren't as opulent but just as layered, the palette of sounds is edgier, the lyrics even more obtuse... and so is the singing. The result is relentlessly dense (tense). It's a shame that it got sandwiched between Scott's classic albums of the late 60s and his cult albums from Tilt on - in my opinion it's easily on par with them.

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