It’s been 25 years since Scott Walker released his dark masterpiece Tilt (8 May 1995). The album was met with positive reviews despite or maybe because of its arcane, unpleasant, theatricality. It features a chamber orchestra, bass lines that echo menacingly, a cathedral organ, locusts, uncomfortable silences, clanging machine noises, and more to suggest a quashed normalcy amidst dangerous circumstances. Plus, Walker didn’t sing as much as melodramatically bellow, vibrate, and tear off lyrics that were often non-sequential and evoked of past horrors such as the murder of the avant-garde Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and Bolivian political prisoners. It was Walker’s first album in more than a decade and revealed the former pop star to be an intense artist determined to follow his vision.
Walker was an American-born singer-songwriter who moved to the United Kingdom and had pop hits with a band of unrelated performers known as the Walker Brothers. After he left the group, Walker achieved success as a solo artist in England, where his first four solo albums reached the top ten. He had a baroque sensibility, putting out an album of Jacques Brel covers (in English) and whose own work mixed cabaret style with prevailing pop sensibilities as if he were London’s version of Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson.
Tilt didn’t initially sell well. How could it? Its very unpleasantness seemed its raison d’être. But it earned Walker a new audience of experimental music lovers. The record was unlike anything he had previously released. During a year when disparately abrasive albums as Radiohead’s The Bends, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Pulp’s Different Class, Elliott Smith’s eponymous release and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and P.J. Harvey’s To Bring You My Love all went gold, Tilt stood out as the bleakest. Perhaps that’s why two and a half decades after its initial release, Tilt sounds like an appropriate context for these times.
It is easy to note the somberness of 1995. It was the year when domestic terrorists blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Across the globe, Serbian troops engaged in the genocide of Muslims of the former Yugoslavia; Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Selena was murdered, and Jerry Garcia died of heart failure. But bad things happen all the time. One would be hard-pressed to pick any year from the last 50 where major acts of death and destruction did not happen. What made Tilt so relevant to both then and now isn’t its gloom. It’s something deeper; a sense of personal alienation not only from the world but from music’s ability to console and comfort. One can howl along with Walker, but not find any catharsis. It’s like fighting an invisible enemy that’s invisible, deadly and requires one to be cut off from other human beings.
Walker went largely silent during the next ten years. He released The Drift in 2006 and Bish Bosch in 2012, both of which share sonic connections to Tilt. The three are often considered a trilogy of like-minded efforts. While these later albums received critical acclaim, the initial shock caused by Tilt had faded. Walker was no longer considered a puzzling figure but a respected and important composer. That said, Tilt is still a difficult listen. It’s recommended as an accompaniment for those days when not only do you find yourself cut off from the rest of civilization because of the current plague, but when you want to be alone in your misery and savor the darkness.