Scott Walker Scott 2

A Man Out of Time: On Scott Walker’s ‘Scott 2’

Scott Walker is a funhouse version of David Bowie. He carved out his own space in music, one almost stubbornly unfashionable but also indispensable in the way one-of-a-kind things often are.

Scott 2
Scott Walker
Philips / Smash
March 1968

The accomplishments of certain artists – Stevie Wonder, say, or Bach – are so widely recognized that they create the illusion of universality. It can look as if musical taste is a registering of intrinsic value and that the gap between Kendrick Lamar and Marky Mark is one that any reasonable person can perceive. Yet even artists of undeniable global appeal and indisputable historical importance – Louis Armstrong, Fela Kuti, the Beatles – are only enjoyed by a tiny percentage of humanity. In the context of all seven and a half billion people on Earth, every artist is a niche artist, and every statement of taste is, essentially, a kink.

I mention all this because Scott Walker is the niche taste to end all niche tastes – the musical equivalent of a kink. One of his most fervent acolytes, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, compared him to Marmite, the famously polarizing British vegetable paste. Yes, those who admire Walker’s music tend to cherish it. The documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man contains testimonials from an impressive range of musicians – Brian Eno and Goldfrapp, Damon Albarn and Dot Allison, Jarvis Cocker, and Johnny Marr. Among New Pornographers alone, Neko Case has covered Walker’s “Duchess”, Carl Newman has regularly sung the artist’s praises on Twitter, and Dan Bejar has said that the sound of Destroyer‘s Your Blues stems from his desire to do justice to “the four decades of Scott Walker’s vision“.

Robert Plant and the London Oriana Choir once performed “Farmer in the City” at a charity concert, Laurie Anderson did a skittery version of the Walker Brothers‘ “The Electrician”, and psychedelic band Outrageous Cherry covered “Boy Child” note for note, albeit with less exquisite vocals. Mark Almond. Dean Wareham. Nick Cave. Leonard Cohen. Elvis Costello. Most famously, David Bowie was an ardent Walker fan, so much so that he was audibly overwhelmed when an interviewer arranged for the reclusive musician to send birthday greetings on a cassette tape: “That’s amazing… I see God in the window.” As for critics, you need only read the reviews in PopMatters or Pitchfork

Yet many others find Walker inexcusable, contemptible, and downright bad. As with Marmite, there is no neutrality on the question. Anyone who has tried to introduce his music, early or late, to someone who otherwise shares 99% of his musical taste will recognize the experience – the grimaces, the puzzled look, the question, “What is this?” Writing about It’s Raining Today, Robert Christgau seems perplexed that the compilation comes with the imprimatur of Marshall Crenshaw and, in describing the work, reaches for insults like “Vera Lynn for late bloomers” and “Anthony Newley without the vocal muscles.” (Anyone who has heard Walker sing will be somewhat puzzled by the implication that he lacks vocal strength.) 

To what should we attribute this stark division? Part of the problem comes from the sheer multiplicity of Walker’s career. Is he a pubescent rockabilly singer on The Eddie Fisher Show, sharing the same bill as Red Buttons, Peggy Lee, and Leo Durocher? Is he the bass player for the Routers, the early 1960s surf band whose “Let’s Go (Pony)” has proven indispensable to the American sports fan? Is he simply an enormous vibrato, the leader of the quasi-Righteous Walker Brothers, who, for a brief span in the mid-1960s, outsold the Beatles in the UK? Is he an interpreter of Jacques Brel? A plagiarizer of Waylon Jennings (see Williams 2006)? A forerunner of the New Wave? A tormented recluse and noise collagist and puncher of sides of beef? A composer of rejected James Bond themes? An associate of Trappist monks? The front person for a dark metal band? 

This whirlwind tour is meant to show that whirlwind tours of Walker’s work are impossible. Any single place you dip in can only mislead you about the rest of his accomplishments. For most listeners, the best place to start remains either Scott 4 or the Boy Child compilation, which covers the five albums in the 1960s over which Walker wrote his greatest songs. These tracks mine the unlikely seam between pre-rock popular music and a kind of proto-Goth cabaret. Yet I would not blame anyone who preferred the punishing sounds of Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))), or even his unlikely cover of Tennessee Williams’ “Blanket Roll Blues”.

For those who decide to enter Walker World, Scott 2 is a first-rate album with 12 tracks that grow out of Walker’s peculiar musical background and lead in the direction of a still more peculiar future. Scott 2 provides a concise introduction to three aspects of Walker’s artistic personality: let’s call them the Composer, the Interpreter, and the Schlockmeister.

I use composer rather than songwriter not to give Walker some kind of spurious importance but because his approach to music-making is at least as focused on shaping sonic space as it is on the usual balance of verses and choruses. Please do not misunderstand: Walker writes memorable songs, but even the most traditional are shot through with idiosyncrasies of arrangement and coloration, eccentric touches that become increasingly apparent as his career progresses. In an interview, Angela Morley, one of his favored arrangers in the 1960s, seems amused by the young man’s repeated invocations of Delius and Sibelius, as one might also be amused by the quotation from Camus on the back of Scott 4 or the allusions to Ingmar Bergman in “The Seventh Seal”.

Yet these two composers provide a hint about what is distinctive about Walker’s approach. We might say that he tends, on the one hand, toward the instrumental floridness one associates with Delius, while on the other hand, embracing the starkness to the point of chilliness one thinks of in relation to Sibelius. I am reminded of the novelist Joseph McElroy’s description of himself as “divided between a cornball and an iceberg” (LeClair and McCaffery 1983).

We can augment that schematic – and begin to make sense of Walker’s deep unfashionability – with an in-depth look at “Plastic Palace People”, a key song from Scott 2. In some ways, this is the least successful of the four Walker compositions on the album. The lyrics seem to be a variation on the middlebrow film classic The Red Balloon, while the title betrays a post-Catcher in the Rye condescension toward suburbia and “phonies” that has not worn well. Yet even the lyrics are stranger than they first appear. A stanza like this one is unlikely to be mistaken for whimsy: “Listen, they’re laughing in the halls / They rip your face with lies / To buzzing eyes you cry for help / Like dogs they bark replies.”

The music is even more striking, like the soundtrack for Mister Rogers’ Hallucinatory Neighborhood. The string arrangement evokes visions of floating, of drifting, with Walker singing in a muted baritone about the child carried away by the wind. Then, after a second of silence, things change course, a steady backbeat comes in, and horns and acoustic guitar push forward a chorus. This, too, is quickly interrupted: there is an upwelling of strings and voice, weirdly dissonant, that crescendo into a kind of reset – the ring of a bicycle bell, followed by a return to that drifting swirl. For more than six minutes, this pattern cycles again and again, uncanny and hypnotic, but also, from any aesthetically responsible position, cheesy. The paradox is that the juxtaposition of the successful and the suspect makes the music more, rather than less, compelling.

The same applies to “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg”. The song has a poor title, an artifact of the period when J. P. Donleavy could call a book The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968), and the aforementioned Anthony Newley could direct a film called Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969). (Perhaps Franco Moretti can explain this short-lived trend for long titles with gaudy diction and implausible proper names.) Yet the lyrics themselves are remarkable, typical of Walker’s short story writer’s approach to his tales of domestic despair and yearning.

You could easily compile a collection of such “stories”, the centerpiece of which would be the closely-observed tales from ‘Til the Band Comes In, the last great album of Walker’s pop period. For that work, Walker originally planned a concept album based around the goings-on in a single apartment house, and “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg” would have fit right in. What makes it a significant entry in the “bedsit drama” category, besides the aching loveliness of the music, is its emotional complexity, the subtlety with which it expresses the restlessness of an unsatisfied husband, the loneliness of his overwhelmed wife, and the exultation of the adulterer. 

 “The Girls from the Streets” stands out for another reason. Although the Walker of the 1960s may seem utterly disconnected from the experimentalist of later years, “The Girls from the Streets” directly presages songs like “The Electrician”, a highlight of the Walker Brothers’ swansong Nite Flights. The same ominous pulse underlies both tracks and somehow, the evening in the town of the former manages to evoke the same sense of danger as the torture and perversity of the latter. The lyrics interweave the romantic and the neo-expressionist in an unsettling way. The friend who leads the speaker out into the “famished night” has a bit of the diabolic to him, like the figure in the forest in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” and the sudden bursts of surrealism – what exactly does “swallowing the pinwheel clowns” mean? – leave one uncertain about the exact nature of this expedition. The song’s rhythm of stasis and sudden release will appear later in Walker’s career – greatly exaggerated – in the noisier work that follows 1995’s Tilt.

Only the last of the originals on the album offers what might be called pure aesthetic pleasure – the kind of excellence that requires no apologies or qualifications. Walker loved the idea of the chanson, and “The Bridge” may be his greatest piece of Francophilia. This chanson expresses the desolate (male) loneliness in which Mark Eitzel would later specialize. Those who only know the powerful vocals on “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “Make It Easy on Yourself” – or, for that matter, the Tom Jonesy bigness of “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg” – will be surprised by the gentleness with which Walker sings the final lines: “White doves turned gray / And flew away / And so did Madeleine.” 

These songs may depart from the usual canons of pop excellence, but that hardly makes them less fascinating. Small wonder that Walker’s turn in the direction of the Composer led to his two best albums of the 1960s – Scott 3, with a small batch of covers sequestered at the end, and Scott 4, with nothing but originals. 

Fans of Walker are divided about the Interpreter. Yes, his covers of Jacques Brel – among the first in English – are widely acclaimed, and rightly so. They add to Brel’s musical vision the element of force. Listen to Brel’s jittery “Jackie”, and then compare it to the galloping juggernaut that is Walker’s version. Listen to the dramatic flair of “Next” or the slick demotic patter of “The Girls and the Dogs”. To my non-Francophone ears, these performances sound more vital than Brel’s, as if someone had wiped away a patina of cigarette smoke and sweat.

I am at least as impressed by the other strong covers on Scott 2. His version of Tim Hardin‘s “Black Sheep Boy” reminds a listener that Walker was, after all, an American from Ohio, one who worked surprisingly well in idioms such as the country stroll of “Rhymes of Goodbye” or the Dylanesque folk of “Duchess” (a condensed “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”). London and Black’s “Best of Both Worlds” hints at the kind of career Walker might have had if he had contented himself with building on the success of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”. It’s a joke when on “Cossacks Are”, the opening track on The Drift, Walker yowls, “You could easily / Picture this in / The current top / Ten.” In the case of “Best of Both Worlds”, it would be a statement of fact. There’s no reason this couldn’t be rotating in regularly on oldies stations, particularly since it easily eclipses contemporaneous recordings by Lulu and the Chicks.

People may underestimate these non-Brel covers because they are easily confused with the work of the Schlockmeister. That side of Walker’s personality would take over in the early 1970s while he struggled with alcohol abuse and released lackluster collections of covers like Any Day Now, Stretch, and We Had It All. (Don’t even ask about his version of “The Impossible Dream.”) On Scott 2, these second-rate songs are mercifully few but still present. “Wait Until Dark” is a syrupy theme from a stilted thriller, “Windows of the World” is the rare Burt Bacharach song whose lyric defeats its melody, and “Come Next Spring” – pleasant as it is – is an oddly anticlimactic end to the album, particularly since Walker had the absolutely electrifying B-side “The Plague” in reserve.

I have emphasized what is questionable about these songs, even as I have praised them for capturing something essential about Walker’s work. A given track may have flawed traits (an awkward title, incomprehensible lyrics, the occasional touch of vocal smarm), but these elements coalesce into a whole that speaks eloquently to the right listener. The same phenomenon occurs on each album, where even the weaker tracks – at least until the infamous “second side of ‘Til the Band Comes In” (see “Bad Cover Version” by Pulp) – contribute to a satisfying structural and emotional rhythm. Through a kind of fractal logic, a similar principle also applies across Walker’s entire career, from the earliest singles with the Walker Brothers to the astringencies of Bish Bosch. The sheer incommensurability of his styles ensures that no single listener can enjoy the entire oeuvre – and yet, for his admirers, these departures from excellence become part of what they value in his art, like the blemishes and bad habits of a friend or lover. 

In some ways, Scott Walker is a funhouse version of David Bowie. For all of those chameleonic shifts, Bowie remained undeniably cool in each mode he adopted. (The obvious exception is that video where he dances with Mick Jagger.) Somehow, Walker remained undeniably uncool at each moment of his career, despite a few stylish outfits in the 1960s. He carved out and continued to extend his own space in the musical field – one that is almost stubbornly unfashionable but also indispensable in the way one-of-a-kind things often are. If Scott 2 has stood the test of time, it has done so precisely by staying out of step with all times.

Works Cited

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Wylie, Wallace. “Dan Bejar of Destroyer – The Collapse Board Interview”. Collapse Board