Scott Walker, the singer/songwriter whose career went from baroque pop to avant-garde dissonance, passed away on Monday. Walker’s label, 4AD, confirmed the news, and the cause of death is not yet known as of this writing. As expected, tributes poured in from his most famous fans, including Thom Yorke, Boy George, Nigel Godrich, and Midge Ure – the latter referring to him on Twitter as “the man with the mahogany voice”.
While Walker may not be a household name among the average music fan, at least in the United States – until this week, the average Google search of Walker likely turned up articles related to the former Governor of Wisconsin – his artistic credentials have remained rock-solid for decades, with artists like David Bowie, Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn regularly citing him as an influence. Yorke’s Twitter tribute referred to Walker as “a huge influence on Radiohead and myself, showing me how I could use my voice and words”.
Walker’s popularity as a cult artist is not particularly surprising, given the experimental nature of much of his work. But it wasn’t always that way. In the mid-’60s, the Ohio-born, California-raised Noah Scott Engel joined forces with fellow musicians John Maus and Gary Leeds, and the three of them eventually all changed their last names to Walker, hence the Walker Brothers. Their elegant pop sound melded sterling melodies with sophisticated arrangements, yielding a number of hits, including “Make It Easy on Yourself”, “Walking in the Rain”, and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”. The latter song was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1966, finding a sweet spot between soaring Bacharach-like melodies and rich sound production reminiscent of Phil Spector. The Walker Brothers enjoyed not only chart success but heartthrob status; it’s been said that their fan club at one time eclipsed that of the Beatles.
Like most artistic visionaries, Scott Walker left the band at the height of its popularity, choosing to move beyond the instant high of pop singles. Reinventing himself as something of a high-art crooner, his first batch of solo albums wrapped his seductive baritone in a critically acclaimed music style reminiscent of Frank Sinatra and Jacques Brel. Subsequent solo albums saw Walker enter a rudderless musical phase that owed more to a middle-of-the-road style, and a mid-’70s regrouping of the Walker Brothers initially kept things along that same path.
However, the Walker Brothers’ 1978 album Nite Flights – their final album as a band – signaled a change in musical direction, which Scott continued to forge until his passing. Many of the songs were dark and twisted and an indication that Scott Walker was no longer interested in catering to the whims of pop/rock audiences. The album’s centerpiece, “The Electrician”, is a haunting, droning ballad that describes the work of a CIA torturer. Nite Flights provided a varied source of inspiration for artists of different mediums – David Bowie covered the title track on his 1993 album Black Tie, White Noise and Nicolas Winding Refn featured “The Electrician” prominently in his 2008 film Bronson.
Walker laid low following Nite Flights, eventually resurfacing in 1984 with Climate of Hunter, an album that continued the experimental bent of the final Walker Brothers album but retrofitted it for the pop aesthetic of the decade. Mo Foster’s fretless bass and Mark Isham’s trumpet are among the ’80s sonic touchstones that wind their way through this album, which is warm and sophisticated but still relentlessly against the grain. It would be hard to imagine songs like “Rawhide” or “Blanket Roll Blues” on a pop radio playlist alongside Huey Lewis or Mr. Mister.
Walker continued to churn out work at a glacial pace, releasing roughly one album a decade – Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006), and Bish Bosch (2012) – although soundtrack work filled some of the gaps, as he contributed music for the films Pola X, And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And What Shall Go to the Ball? and Childhood of a Leader. Each album was stranger than the one that preceded it, with Walker employing orchestral instrumentation, pipe organs, Hawaiian slack key guitar, gongs, synthesizers, even – as in the case of “Clara”, from The Drift – a percussionist punching a side of meat. Lyrical subject matter became less and less aligned with that of traditional pop music as well. “Jesse” is about the stillborn twin brother of Elvis Presley. “Farmer in the City” references the death of controversial filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. And who knows what the hell “Epizootics!” – from the deeply strange Bish Bosch – is about.
Walker’s final non-soundtrack work was the album Soused, a 2012 collaboration with experimental drone-metal band Sunn O))). The Seattle duo seemed like kindred spirits of Walker’s, with a reputation for creating disturbing, doom-laden music that consumes the listener whole. Soused is a dark, atmospheric piece of work that combines Walker’s unique crooning with Sunn O)))’s droning wall of guitars and throwing in synths and even cracking of whips for good measure. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s easy to get lost in.
Choosing to reside in England for most of his life, the Midwestern Walker appeared deeply appreciative of the adulation and respect he received in his adopted country, where he was able to ply his twisted trade with a scant amount of suspicious prying. In 2003, the publicity-shy Walker was presented with an award from Q Magazine at a ceremony in London, introduced by Jarvis Cocker (whose band, Pulp, released the excellent, Walker produced album We Love Life in 2001). Cocker gave a short speech that was equal parts reverent to Walker and deservedly surly to the audience of glossy pop stars in attendance. “Awards are given away willy-nilly nowadays,” Cocker sneered to the audience, “but this award is actually different.” He continued, “Please accord the respect due to the winner of Q Magazine’s Special Award for 2003, Mr. Scott Walker.” Approaching the stage dressed smartly but low-key in dark denim, Walker hugged Cocker and accepted the award with brief but polite remarks. And then it was off to make more music.
Scott Walker’s unique, startling career trajectory should be a lesson for any artist who would rather make challenging art than disposable crowd-pleasers.