It's been a pretty busy few months for Scott Walker aficionados since his latest album Bish Bosch was released last December, and with a new boxset of his five first solo albums being reissued at the beginning of this month.
A lot has been written and published about Walker's very long musical career and the so-called enigma of his "reclusive" personality, his audience seemingly divided sharply between two camps*, with the one preferring his old stuff (usually described as aging boomer women in the musical press) and the other really more into his newer output (described as middle-aged hipster dudes in the same press. Clichés never die). This division is a bit pointless, and if you come to his music brand new I'd say you should, like me, start backwards, especially if you come from the art world. Then you shouldn't be surprised by anything.
To give a quick recap, Walker was born Noel Scott Engel in 1943 in Hamilton, Ohio, had an itinerant childhood in the United States, started performing as a child singer on Broadway then on the Eddie Fischer show on TV, before joining in his early twenties a club band in Hollywood named the Walker Brothers, none of them being siblings nor named Walker.
He was their bass player, and the band later achieved brief but immense fame in the UK in the mid-1960s when it morphed into a majestic boys band performing (mostly) covers of foolproof standards arranged with soaring orchestrations. They had great looks, Engel was (and still is) blessed with one of the most beautiful male voice of the last half-century or so, and so he became the reluctant lead vocal of the band. And the target of thousands of screaming and stalking pubescent girls, an experience that has apparently traumatized him for life. He's said to be a painfully shy man and extremely private person so finding himself the target of such violent scrutiny can only have been frightening, as he was often unable to leave his home lest he be molested by dozens of young women trying to tear off bits of his clothing and of his body as souvenir.
The band broke up like all bands do (the Rolling Stones and U2 don't count, OK?), Scott Walker released in a very quick amount of time 4 magnificent solo albums of mostly self-penned music (with Jacques Brel covers that made the Belgian singer known to the Anglo-Saxon world), the last one sinking without a trace in 1969, condemning him to an ignominious career in the 1970s as a cheesy singer interpreting crappy innocuous ballads and country music.
The legend goes that he drank himself to oblivion, until a Walker Brothers short reunion at the end of the 1970s before breaking up definitively again, but not until after they had made a great experimental record called Nite Flights in 1978. It influenced David Bowie and Brian Eno, and is in passing screaming for a re-issue on vinyl.
Scott Walker then had to wait until 1984 to be able to record an entirely self-penned solo record again, Climate of Hunter, and then wait another decade to come up with his "latter" work with Tilt. Then in 2006 came The Drift, and last year Bish Bosch.
These albums have come to constitute a trilogy, often deemed "difficult" or "inaccessible" by music critics. Yours truly begs to differ, because I listen to them all the time, if not every day (as a matter of fact, almost everyday, save when I have a migraine). Not only that but sometimes I listen to the three of them in a row, which is an incredible experience I can only recommend you try (you just need 4 solid hours of free time ahead).
Also, I digress, but I would really like if music critics wouldn't utter definitive pronouncements on new records such as "listeners won't give it more than a couple of listens", which I've read about Bish Bosch when it came out, at a time when I'd had maybe a dozen listens of the record already. Music critics, you can't presume everybody will have the same experience and reaction to music as yourselves.
A lot of the Walker mystique has to do with the long time that comes between his solo records, and the fact that as he seems to be living a totally normal, regular life. Like he goes to the supermarket, rides his bike, etc. The length of time between albums has a lot to do with record labels and music industry shenanigans more than anything else, as is often the case with older musicians who make or strive to make non-conventional music (John Cale, my other favorite musician, has had to wait a long time between leaving EMI and finding a home at Domino/Double Six, for example). The regular life means Walker doesn't show his face at industry parties and celebrity hangouts. Also, he's seventy now and maybe he'd rather be at home or spending time with his loved ones than, I don't know, go to a sponsored party for some stupid cell phone? You've been to one stupid party, you've been to all of them.
If you want to know more about Walker, there are at least half a dozen books and bios published about him. I've read about 3 or 4 and I can confidently tell you that you'd better read his Wikipedia bio and then hunt from various interviews on the internet (several audio and video interviews are available on YouTube, and you can find some good ones on the websites of The Quietus, The Guardian, etc.), you will learn as much and you won't have to spend the money that would be better used buying his own records. It's more interesting to listen to his music anyway than trying to figure out what this elderly dude eats for breakfast, who he's dating, and how he makes a living (seriously the number of interviews I've seen when he's asked how he makes money, geez, how rude).
In addition there was a rather good documentary complete with interviews with Walker himself that came out in 2006, Scott Walker 30th Century Man. It's available on DVD, there are excerpts on YouTube (the whole thing seems to be available on there as well but "not available in your country blah-blah-blah), and I think it's a better introduction to Walker than most of the books and bios. It's great because you see Walker working in the studio in it, something that always fills me with childish wonder when I see it because music making is very abstract to me, so seeing it being made is always a treat.
Now, about the music. As I said earlier, there are apparently 2 bitterly divided camps about his music. That was rather new to me when I started to get into Walker's music, rather late compared to everybody, as usual. You see, I discovered it with his "later" output post car-accident, one evening in 2009, when I clicked on one of those YouTube related links after listening to I can't remember what (Throbbing Gristle maybe?)
The song was "Jesse", from The Drift and HOLY MOTHER OF BELPHEGOR HOW COME SOMEONE CAN MAKE SUCH INCREDIBLE MUSIC!
I had absolutely no idea that the song was about 9/11 and about Elvis Presley's dead twin brother. Not that it mattered to me at the time.
All I knew was that it was heartbreakingly beautiful, and that whoever was singing like this made me cry. I had to listen to it over and over again, until I moved onto a few other songs by Walker.
By that stage all I knew about him is that he was a name that had been repeated many times in French mag Les Inrockuptibles when it was still a respectable publication, at the very beginning of the 1990s. At the time I was too broke to buy music anymore, and Walker's records weren't available anywhere that I knew of. I was also under the misguided impression he was some old, washed out Nashville country singer, which, in my twenties, sounded like anathema.
His subject matter at the time was a lot about the miseries and sordidness of ordinary life, but also about political subjects, and also sex of course in all its crude and unsavory facets as well as its unmitigated pleasures.
I'm just mentioning this because some of his recent lyrics can also be raunchy, he deals with the political as well, etc. and so I don't see a real discontinuity with what he sang about in the 1960s. The language has evolved, it's more poetic and also I think more sophisticated, but in some songs it still follows a narrative of sorts, especially on Bish Bosch, with SDSS1416 + 13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter), the coolest song title ever.
I'm generally not super curious about musicians beyond reading the Wikipedia entry about them if there's one, which I'm sure I did at the time, and then I quickly forgot the basics. At that time I was also very broke again (see, car accident) and not yet in a possession of a turntable, so I had to wait until 2 years ago to be able to lay my hands on beautiful vinyl records and finally find The Drift (at Wombleton Records in Los Angeles, thanks so much Ian for fetching it out of the back when I asked about it, may you be blessed forever).
As you can see I am really very, very late to the Walker party. Which is great in a way because I didn't have to wait that long until Bish Bosch came out this year. I didn't really get into his 1960s solo record until last year, when I bought some reissues, so the division between new/old Scott Walker isn't particularly interesting nor even relevant to me.
In hindsight when I listen to the old stuff I can see the germs of the "new" music already in songs like Plastic Palace People, with its broken tempo** and its lyrics that verge a bit into abstraction. A lot of"early" Walker songs have this tendency to abstract lyrics ("Can't you see the towers of mine they could shine like a dime" on The World's Strongest Man - I always think about something vaguely obscene like, er, ahem... when I hear that, but then I'm French), so for me his recent songs are a continuation of that.
The music has evolved of course, but it's still the same musical vocabulary: lots of strings, lots of bells (I love love love how he uses them) and interesting percussions, in conjunction with the regular instruments you find in rock and pop music. It's used differently of course, but once again the seeds sowed in the 1960s just grew into something exotic and unfamiliar, but recognizable and very exciting.
I'm saying all of this because if, like me, you discovered Walker recently and find your way backwards in his discography, then you don't see what all the fuss about the "old" and "new" Scott Walker is all about. It's the same guy, the same concerns, the same idiom, but that has evolved to become unconventional and as such groundbreaking. It resembles nothing you've ever heard before, and nowadays it's very rare to listen to music that is so new. Coming from someone who's seventy and could be happily retired.
Now I understand that it can be very surprising if your idea of music is to put on the radio to listen to Rhianna or Beyoncé while you do the dishes, or switch on your Ibiza Dancemasters 12 mp3 compilation on when you have friends coming over. Or if you've been listening exclusively to hipster new folk music or generic indie rock for the last 10 years.
But if you've been curious about classical and experimental classical music, as well as industrial music and pioneers of rock and roll experimentation for a long time, then Walker is for you.
Say, you like Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, Varese, Stravinsky, Feldman, Shostakovich, Ligeti, the Velvet Underground, and maybe Death Metal, then you should be at home with Walker's music.
There's a long history of eccentric figures in rock'n'roll including, say, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa (I loathe both of them but it's another story) on the one hand and maybe, say, Nick Drake and Tim Buckley on the other, and Walker bridges both types - without having anything to do with them musically, it's just to give you an idea of the type of persona that could be attracted to his music.
So it's not as if there wasn't anything to give listeners any context to place Walker in terms of the last 50 years of popular music or so.
I think what throws off most people when they listen to the "new"*** Scott Walker is his style of singing. At first listen it may seem unnatural. I say "may", because if you've ever heard baroque singing or even opera singing, these are totally unnatural styles that people are nevertheless not questioning at all when they listen to it.
They don't correspond to popular, mainstream ideas of music, but they are accepted all the same. And as far as popular music goes, does Freddy Mercury's style sound natural to you? All those guys singing into falsetto voices, do they seem natural? Does Klaus Nomi sounds natural? Robert Plant? Russell Mael?
On the other end of the spectrum, how about Death Metal and Black Metal? It always sounds like singers are vomiting stones if you ask me, it doesn't prevent them from having a vast and faithful following.
So there are many popular singers who don't sing in a natural voice, and it's also true about most contemporary R'n'B which, being the most prevalent commercial genre these days, tells you all you need to know about about judging Walker's style on its artificiality or not.
Walker seemed to have abandoned or rather modified his trademark barytone as far back as Nite Flights in 1978, with songs like The Electrician where he experiments with various tones (scales? once again I lack musical descriptive vocabulary) and more characteristically with the Nite Flights song itself. Climate of Hunter pursues in this vein, until we arrive to Tilt which is really when that new singing manner makes its mark.
The album starts with what is for me one of the most beautiful song ever written, Farmer In The City, in homage to Pasolini.
It's a song that comes this close to verging on kitsch with its strings arrangement, but the voice is what keeps it all together. I've listened to it over and over and even though I know if so well, my heart breaks each time Walker sings "... and I used to be a citizen".
Some other songs deal with politics and wars (Patriot-A Single and Bolivia 95 most particularly) where Walker makes his feelings known about his native country's involvement in the many bloodbaths and support of dictatorships in the 20th century), and the albums ends with Rosary, a rather bleak and spare song about... love?
Tilt does exactly just that, it throws us off balance and obligates us to pay attention to the music because of the shift in focal point, and by focal point what I mean is that there isn't just one but many.
And this is reflected in the structure of the songs, in the sense that they all do have a structure but it isn't a conventional one as you would expect in pop or rock music. There are breaks and pattern changes and silences and variations in tones and even in volume within the same song.
Everything shifts in a Scott Walker song, but does so while miraculously keeping its internal balance, more often than not through the sheer power of the voice and its unconventional singing style.
There are moments when you would expect him to whisper lyrics and he shouts them, and some others where you'd think some power singing would do but you just get the tiniest flutter of words.
In passing, I've read people speculating that Walker sings this way because "he must have lost his voice", to which I want to say: listen to it. People who lose their voice don't have that incredible power. Man, is he loud and powerful when he wants to.
The Drift continues in that vein, with Walker pursuing his shift away from conventional songwriting, as indicated with the album title, but with added touches of dark humor here and there. The opening song, Cossacks Are , appropriates media reviews or reports of "backhanded compliments", but whether you know it or not won't prevent you from finding it funny (I hope).
The imagery is a mix of beautiful images and savagery "Cossacks are charging ... in a field of white roses" and absurd details "it's a nice suit... it's a swanky suit" as well as a sentence culled verbatim from George W. Bush talking about Chirac "I'm looking for a good cowboy". What makes the song is Walker's delivery, a mixture of deadpan humor and absurd tragedy.
As with Tilt, some songs are heartbreaking, such as Hands Me Up and the aforementioned Jesse. Hands Me Up mixes two topics, the cult of celebrities that came up with reality TV and a sordid tale of a father murdering his children out of jealousy.
You can sense a lot of anxiety in the lines "The audience is waiting" (repeated 4 times) and "I tried"(twice). And then you have "the pee-pee soaked trousers": it's ridiculous - followed immediately by "the torn muddied dress": it's a cliché. But sung together in Walker's voice, these are heartbreaking. The mundane little tragedies of childhood brought together to evoke death.
The one song people always think about when The Drift is mentioned is Clara, about Mussolini's mistress who chose to go to her death with him even though she could have easily escaped. People remember the "meat punching" used to aurally evoke the abuse her dead body had to endure when it was exposed to the crowds at the end of WWII, an image Walker had seen on a newsreel at the cinema when he was a child and that had haunted him ever since. But it is a very long song, with a guest female singer in the middle, and some spoken words by Walker in the middle and at the end, about "birds" and the bird that flew inside someone's room and was released outside by the narrator, so unlike Clara the bird escaped imprisonment and a certain death.
There's also lots of humor in Walker's other songs, sometimes present only with the onomatopeia used as chorus or bridges like the "wahoo wahoo wahoo" in Rosary on Tilt, or the "Psssst Psssst" in A Lover Loves which concludes The Drift (and ends up with "let's go!" which never fails to crack me up, no matter how many times I've heard it).
Sometimes these are really irritating, but annoying in a way that makes you think the song would lose all its internal balance without it, and also makes you think about all the conventional "lalala lalala" or "fafafafa", etc. in countless mindless love songs everywhere. Change the sound of the onomatopeia and you see the song in a whole new light.
With Bish Bosch we're now used to Walker's style, but this one is another beast altogether. If you compare it to Tilt and The Drift, this album is far less monolithic and much more diverse in terms of sonic textures, and the humor is this time fairly obvious. Many people commented on the "fart noises" on Corps de Blah (many UK journalists were shocked, and this coming from a country that invented the whoopee cushion) which also sounds like balloons being deflated. Or burst even.
I like this image much more because it can be used metaphorically: the seriousness of people commenting on Walker's "somber outlook" seeing their stereotypical opinions burst with a needle and reduced to torn rubber pieces (also because the image is close to the "plucking feathers from a swan's song", the line that opens the record on "See You Don't Bump His Head").
Zercon, the longest song on the record, tells the story of a deformed dwarf court jester at Attila's palace and his transformation into a stylites hermit and later on an exploding/imploding dwarf star. Being a jester he throws lots of jokes, and the one people always quote is "if shit were music, you'd be a brass band" (they fail to mention the melancholic "la la la la" right after "music" which I think adds a lot more meaning to the song).
As always a lot of the humor comes simply with the delivery, especially if the words used are clichés: on Epizootics, a song that starts like "A Hawaiian nightmare" but morphs into an inventive use of 1930s and 1940s hipster slang (most of it real and not invented by Walker, such as "Gabriel's gravy", but now totally obscure especially if you're a secondary language speaker).
At the very end of the song, the last words go something like: "Sweeeeeet Lei-LAAAA-ni HEA-venly FLO-wers" to somehow make fun of all the Hawaiian imagery.
Walker loves blending the grotesque, the ridiculous and the absurd with violence and tragedy, such as in The Day The Conducator Died, recalling the end of the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu and his wife but blending the story with "a personality questionnaire" as many dictators and world leaders suffer from personality cult, the ambiguity being compounded with the "O very much, O not so much" at the end of each question.
The song and the record end with Walker playing a bit from Jingle Bells on precisely that (bells that jingle, thank you for the tautology, it cracks me up all the time), and it manages to be totally heartbreaking once again, while being also so ridiculous it's funny.
The song is subtitled "A Christmas Song" because Ceaucescu and his wife were shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day. During interviews Walker was joking that "of course, it is the perfect Christmas single".
Sometimes you can't make sense of a whole song, but then I'm not sure it really matters because this can be said of a lot of other songs by other musicians (randomly, This Corrosion by Sisters of Mercy: does it make any sense to you? But it's a great song nonetheless).
Walker uses a lot of foreign words, sometimes pronouncing them incorrectly ("cogliones", in Zercon, is a case in point), sometimes without you having any idea what they mean, like the Danish words on Dimple, but it doesn't matter because just the way he repeats them as backing vocals is simply too beautiful.
Sometimes the imagery is just powerful enough you don't see why there should be any meaning anyway, like the way he repeats "roomful of mice" on Pilgrim.
Bish Bosch is a whole lot different from Tilt and The Drift because, if the former heralds the shift from musical conventions and the later its floating even further away from them, Bish Bosch announces that the job is done and it's time to move on to something different. In a way it is a lighter album than the other two ones, while also being more baroque in its irregular shape. You hear more variety in the melodies and instrumentation than on The Drift, for example.
While listening to the three albums consecutively and separately, I've been trying to figure out if one of them was the best of the three, but I can't manage to come to this conclusion.
Bish Bosch is more dynamic rhythmically so you have more variety and therefore less occasions to be emotional than on The Drift or Tilt (and that's why I say it's promising a new direction) but it's also a very tight album conceptually and musically, the way both Tilt and The Drift are.
The only song I find a bit out of place on the trilogy is Tilt itself (on Tilt, obviously) because I think it sounds more like something that would have been more at home on Climate of Hunter.
All three records survive numerous and repeated listens without the listener (OK, make that me) ever getting bored or satiated. There's always a sonic surprise coming up whenever you put them on the turntable, always a piece of lyrics you grasp anew, and then these moments you come to expect with a childish impatience if they make you laugh, or that never fail to move you even if you heard them many, many times.
There has been a lot made of Walker's expressivity and emotion or on the contrary lack thereof in his singing, depending on who you ask, but as far as I know, when people comment on the way he's stripping his voice of emotion, I think they miss a very salient point.
What Walker has been stripping his voice of is his ego, and by ego what I mean is that overconfident sexual swagger many male singers are imbuing their vocals with.
He's not demanding people to want to fuck him (God knows the poor man has had to suffer enough from the hypersexualized attention of hordes of fans in his youth). He's not stripping his voice of emotion, he's stripping it off of manufactured, clichéd, fake feelings.
There a millions of insincere love songs on the planet, so he's not adding yet another one to pretend to comfort lost souls and laugh all the way to Las Vegas.
What he's been doing instead is humbly asking that we listen to the words, to the stories... to the stories coming down from our common savage history, made to marry new and groundbreaking music that makes him the very first, and to my knowledge the only one musician of the 21st century, the one that transport us to another place.
Everybody else is just pretending.
I pilfered this picture from a Google image search a while ago and I have no idea where it's coming from. At a guess I think it's "Iain and Jane" who did the Bish Bosch trailer?
* You can observe this division if you check the two main Scott Walker fan pages on Facebook, one of them manned by real fans and the other by whoever represents his back catalog, I think Universal. Many people who are on that one don't seem to have any clue that Walker is still alive and making groundbreaking music.
In passing, I'm always surprised when people check fan pages on Facebook and seem to believe or assume that whoever musician/writer/artist/filmmaker etc. is behind it and write comments assuming the person will read them and answer. It happens but it's rare...
** As I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I love music but I know jackshit about it, so if I use the wrong descriptive words it's all due to my lack of musical training and abilities. Sorry about that.
*** I keep on putting "new" and "later" in quotation marks because he's been doing it for almost 20 years now, it's not so recent anymore.