One of the reasons we look back at artists, at their pasts, their past work, their influence, is to try and understand them better. Or perhaps differently. We like to re-see artists with new context or confirm the ideas we already had about them. No matter what we’re doing, whether its these options or something else, we explore artists and their work — past or present — to understand.
The hope is that time will give us perspective. But with an artist like Scott Walker, understanding may be beside the point. In fact, working your way through the huge and excellent and puzzling new set, The Collection 1967-1970, which comprises five of Walker’s early solo albums, it’s sometimes hard to know who it is you’re learning about. Is this the Scott Walker that left his successful pop group the Walker Brothers to strike out on his own? Is this the Walker fascinated and influenced by Jacques Brel and film scores who blew his pop songs up into lush expansive compositions? Is this some fledgling version of the Walker we know now, creator of negative space anti-epics, as industrial and dark and cavernous as his early songs were bright and full?
The answer, to all these questions, is both yes and no. It is all of these versions of Walker and none of them. What’s so striking is to look back at a series of records titled Scott and learn so little about the Scott behind them — who was, by the way, actually named Noel Scott Engel. But that lack of understanding doesn’t end up as being all that frustrating. Rather than providing us a clear windshield to see out of as we travel through these songs, what we get is one splintered and spiderwebbed with cracks, and it’s the cracks and their unpredictable paths and interweaving that we get caught up in, that we can’t untangle but can build patterns in.
Scott, Walker’s debut, starts us off both in comfort and in confusion. “Matilde” is a schizophrenic pop song, one written French by Jacques Brel, translated into English and given new life by Walker. It’s also a song both tortured and enraptured by the return of the title character. He asks his mother to pray for him, tells his friends he’ll “drink [his] tears” because “Matilde’s come back to me.” But when he addresses his heart, the conversation changes. “Don’t tell me she’s lovelier than when she went away,” he pleads, though he knows he’ll convince himself of this. The battle between the inner and outer worlds makes for dark comedy here, and some drama — especially considering the huge horn section and thundering drums — but it also sets up a sort of metaphor for Walker’s early days as a solo artist. Here he’s taking the outer (Brel’s words) and using them to reflect some inner turmoil that is at least presented as his. This is of a piece with the lovelorn blue-eyed soul tunes he sang with the Walker Brothers, but the darkness isn’t underneath his solo songs like it was on, say, Walker Brothers’ hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)”. And while Brel may be the loudest voice here, there are others. Walker also records Tim Hardin’s “Lady Came From Baltimore”, taking a break from the orchestral pop of the rest of the record to record this folk-pop gem. “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” is one of several movie songs that end up on Walker’s records.
These elements repeat throughout these records. Scott 2 features Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy”, as well as several cuts by Brel and from films. As a performer who has so often steered towards the uncomfortable — and not just since 1995’s Tilt — it’s interesting in these records to hear Walker at his most comfortable singing Brel. Scott‘s “My Death” is noir-ish, shadowy, but also charming, the kind of dark song that draws you in, as much with the ringing guitars as with the ease with which Brel’s words (albeit, translated) fit in Walker’s mouth. Scott 2 opens with Walker’s biggest solo hit, Brel’s “Jackie”, which ups the ante on the dark corners of “Matilde”. Here we hear of getting drunk with “some grandmama who might be decked out like a Christmas tree” or “authentic queers and phony virgins” and everything Walker does here, to sing his songs, is done “in a stupid-ass way.” It’s a challenging start to a record, one that would sell well, and it was a song that would get banned for its lyrics. But it also sets up a song like “Next”, which has a much more troubling melody — one you could use to draw a clear line to Nick Cave at his most deathly.
These songs are in stark contrast with film tunes like “Wait Until Dark” or Scott 2 standout “Come Next Spring”, which are much more direct in their melancholy. These songs, though, remind us of the pure power of Walker’s voice, and the love he has of big, cinematic sounds. If the orchestra arrangements of Scott remind us of the sugary tunes of the Walker Brothers’ Images (released in 1967, just six months before Scott), they also grow and pull away from that limited pop sensibility. Even at their most tuneful, these songs are big and unwieldy, as challenging in their scope as they are in their theme. This connecting of Brel’s underbelly words and Walker’s love of big studio productions, reinvented Walker and his records sold, particularly in the UK where his European influence was more easily identified and accepted.
Scott 3 is where Walker takes these influences and reforms them most completely into his own artistic vision. He still covers Brel twice on the album, and his fragile version of “If You Go Away” is a heartbreaking standout. Most of the record, though, and more than on any other previous effort, was written by Walker himself. So he gives us “It’s Raining Today”, which recalls the shadows of “My Death” but there something more candid about this, about moments of connection. “I’m just about to forget that train window girl I met that wonderful day,” he sings, and you hear him recall details, trying to commit the scene, this person, to memory, even as he hints — with the lingering, ambient strings behind the track — that it will all fade. “Rosemary” sways with restrained violins, and just enough space around the shuffling drums. In these songs, there are less elements used with greater import. This isn’t about the combination of many sounds, but rather the isolation of certain ones (he maximizes this trick on his more recent work). It’s as clear a vision as we get of who Scott Walker is in the late ’60s. And yet, we also get a song like “30 Century Man”, which throws that all into doubt. It’s a short, jangly folk song, nothing like these other songs, and it’s brilliant. But Walker seems to goad us with the song, pulling any clear picture we have of him away from us. “See the dwarfs and see the giants, / which one would you choose to be,” he asks but also tells us. He’s not so much wondering what we would do as telling us he hasn’t decided yet. He hasn’t bedded down in a particular version of himself as a performer.
Scott 3 is as close as that tide rolls in to shore. It also marked a shift for Walker as a successful musician. The more atmospheric elements which made this record distinctly also finally began to alienate his fan base. He would follow it with Scott: Scott Walker Sings Songs From His TV Show (that’s right, he was so popular in England he has a show, if you can imagine it), an album that sold but — filled with covers — feels like a step back. It’s no wonder the album is one Walker has blocked from reissue, along with other albums that would come in the ’70s.
In The Collection, we skip that album in favor of Scott 4, an album that does little to clear up confusions of identity regarding Scott Walker. It was originally released under his birth name (though all reissues are now credited to Scott Walker), and some attributed its failure to that. But the collection of songs from his TV Show was all covers, and so Walker followed it with this, his first album of all original material. So it is entirely his, entirely Noel Scott Engel’s, and yet he sounds completely lost. His love of film leads him to recount the plot of the famous Ingmar Bergman movie on “The Seventh Seal”. Songs like “The World’s Strongest Man” and “Duchess” are sweet and lilting, but they also sound fatigued, not comfortable but settled. If the “Duchess” has the “Persian sea running through [her] veins”, Walker seems to be floating along.
It’s also a necessary transition, an album that may pale in comparison to its predecessors, but also show Walker tempering his growing eccentricities with a newfound, grown-up pop concision. This leads to the more vibrant Til the the Band Comes In, the only album that doesn’t use his name in this set. The shedding of that name seems to set Walker free. The churning “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)”, with its warm horns and Spanish flair, is a shot in the arm. The bar blues of “Joe” is a brilliant twist on his usual writ-large balladry. “Time Operator” veers into a kind of strange negative space — accenting piano with faint bongos and in-and-out strings — that has become synonymous with Walker’s work. It’s the kind of thing that no doubt had an impact on other singular voices like Tom Waits. As on previous records, he pits his originals against covers like Jimmie Rodger’s “It’s Over”. On this record he divides the two sections, though, playing all of his songs and then closing with the covers, so the division of influence and performer is distinct and complete. No longer do the voices of Rodgers or Hardin or Brel bleed into Walker. He is separate, other, even alien. This doesn’t always work on this album — “Jean the Machine” and “Thanks for Chicago Mr. James” are energetic but down the middle — but it feels like more of a declaration than Scott 4.
Though what that declaration is of, or who it is by, remains a mystery. The Collection 1967-1970 is a brilliant set, a huge glut of songs that allows us to look at Scott Walker’s early years as a solo artist. But while we see him struggle and search, and find new sounds and succeed brilliantly, none of this clears our understanding of him. Instead, it confirms the big questions of identity his music has always posed. He plays with all of our expectations of him as a brilliant singer and former pop icon, but he also plays with his own (or what we might imagine to be his own), twisting his love of eccentric pop at every turn, and fighting his way out of pigeonholes he was both externally and internally put in. But at every turn, every time he moves out of one phase, it’s hard to know what the next phase is, and it’s even harder to know if Walker knows, or cares. There have been countless artists to remind us that the person who performs is not always the performer, but no one has muddled that question as completely and interestingly as Scott Walker has. The Collection 1967-1970 shows us those themes of identity in all their uneven fractured glory, through stories told by a dwarf or a giant. By Scott Walker or Noel Scott Engel. Or neither. Or both.