As preparation for Scott Walker's first studio album since 2006, we review the essential tracks from his long, strange career.
Most great artists have occasional disputes with their muses as they negotiate the realities of popular appeal. Few of these struggles equal those of longtime American expatriate Scott Walker, whose oeuvre is effectively a series of ultimatums, breakups, and passionate embraces with a stubborn inspiration that, over the course of more than half a century, has become increasingly determined to keep him on the fringes. Despite his early work garnering a devoted UK fanbase, when it comes to fame in his native United States, he's probably lesser known than the conservative Wisconsin governor with whom he regrettably shares a name.
On December 3rd, 4AD will release Bish Bosch, Walker's 14th solo album and his first since 2006. This leaves an uncharacteristically tiny gap in the timeline of his most recent album releases, with 2006's The Drift and 1995's Tilt each taking about a decade to brew. Walker wasn't always so deliberate, though, and his catalog is perhaps the strangest and least consistent in all of pop (if the term even loosely applies to his late-period work). There’s room for transcendent artfulness and unbearable pap, heartbreaking pop ballads and discordant avant-garde compositions, and it covers that range from definitive to stunningly ill-fitting.
In the mid-1960s, Walker scored two number one UK hits with the Walker Brothers, and was once popular enough to host his very own BBC variety show, Scott. By the time he would sing the line "You could easily picture this in the current top ten" (on 2006's "Cossacks Are"), the idea of a Scott Walker song on a singles chart of any kind was an absurdity, a self-aware joke. He'd gone from breaking hearts with orchestral flare to recording songs on which a percussionist punching a side of meat wasn't necessarily the strangest component.
This chronological list isn't necessarily a collection of Walker's best songs (some might argue that Scott 4 is already that, and others would say that the radically different Tilt is as good as Walker gets), but an attempt at capturing the essence of his various career turns and to give you some tips in navigating a catalog full of acquired tastes and outright fumbles.
(Meet Scott Engel, 1958)
Born Noel Scott Engel in 1943, Walker wasted no time getting a music career off the ground, appearing on Broadway and issuing singles as "Scotty Engel" before he was 14. After moving to Los Angeles with his mother in 1957, Eddie Fisher took him under his wing, prepping him for success as a pop idol. By his mid-teens, Engel was working as a session bassist and releasing ballads and occasional rave-ups, including "The Livin' End". It's an early entry in his catalog, but there are hints of the deep, sturdy voice that would later define him. There's also a suggestion of an Elvis Presley obsession that makes for some insight into the lyrics of 2006's "Jesse", in which Walker elliptically makes a connection between Presley's feelings for his unborn twin brother and the collapse of the World Trade Center. Penned by Rod McKuen and Henry Mancini (both of whom Walker would return to several times in the early '70s), "The Livin' End" is primarily worth mentioning because, even in a career full of sharp contrasts, Walker would never again sound so upbeat.
In 1964, Engel joined John Maus and Gary Leeds to become the Walker Brothers, with Engel adopting "Scott Walker" as his permanent professional name. All Americans, the trio relocated to London the following year, and Walker has lived overseas ever since. Working in a broadly emotional, orchestrated sound not unlike the Righteous Brothers' Phil Spector-era material, the Walker Brothers scored a number of UK hits, including the definitive recording of this Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio tune (originally recorded by Frankie Valli a year earlier), also the trio's highest-charting U.S. single. Miles away from the teenage tenor of "The Livin' End", Scott's voice had richened into an expressive baritone, all the better to deliver the heavy weather sentiment that follows from the line "Loneliness is a cloak you wear". While Walker's later work is divisive for various reasons, "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" is virtually indisputable, as timeless a pop recording as ever was.
Although all of the Walker Brothers' hit singles were written by outside songwriters, by the time the band had broken up in 1967, Scott had contributed some promising album tracks and b-sides. When he struck out on his own, he still relied heavily on a superbly varied taste in cover material ranging from Tim Hardin to Weill/Mann to André Previn, but his own writing was also evolving, becoming darker and more complicated. On the verses of "Montague Terrace (In Blue)", he lays out the squalor of a shabby apartment house in fine detail, a "bloated, belching" man in the room above and a jaded prostitute across the hall. On the chorus, though, he lets loose with that soaring croon, hoping for a brighter future for him and his lover that's vague and likely illusory, but moving nonetheless.
(Scott 2, 1968)
Walker songs like "Montague Terrace (In Blue)" probably wouldn't exist were it not for Scott Walker's late '60s fascination with Belgian composer Jacques Brel, through whose chansons Walker learned to marry romantic drama to the grimiest of life's realities. Walker was the first performer to record Mort Shuman's English translations of Brel (later featured in Shuman's revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris), and he included three Brel songs each on Scott, Scott 2, and Scott 3. Brel's "Jackie" opens Scott 2 with a fanfare befitting the wild aspirations of the narrator -- to drunkenly mingle with café eccentrics and to become a proto-Ice-T, pimping out "authentic queers and phony virgins" while "selling records by the ton". Hilariously, under all of this opulence and debauchery, "Jackie" is about staying grounded -- keeping it real, as it were -- even if it's just for "an hour every day". Walker sells the fantasy with a characteristically commanding vocal and undercuts it with a knowing wink throughout.
(Scott 3, 1969)
Walker has often been quick to dismiss his past work, but he threw Scott 2 under the bus almost immediately after its release, calling it "the work of a lazy, self-indulgent man". That's a touch overly critical, but with his next move being the even better Scott 3, perhaps it's best to not let the man cut himself any slack. By 1969, he could channel his talent for people-pleasing interpretations of middle-of-the-road ballads into his short-lived TV show and was free to make Scott 3 the vehicle for his artier impulses; aside from the three Brel covers relegated to the end of the album, all of the songs are Walker originals. With heavy orchestration still a defining element of his music and Walker's croon as out of style as could be in the year of Led Zeppelin and Let It Bleed, parts of Scott 3 could still be mistaken for easy listening. Yet Wally Stott's string arrangements go dissonant where least expected, and songs like "Big Louise" were somewhat innovatively conceived as "miniatures" -- character studies with attention to minute detail and descriptive language. There's nothing mellow about the aging (and -- according to Walker, but not plainly stated in the lyric -- transvestite) Louise's sadness. In relatively few words, Walker embodies the ache of lost youth: "She fills the bags 'neath her eyes / With the moonbeams / And cries 'cause the world's passed her by."