I’ve been very excited about the Scott Walker documentary 30 Century Man ever since it was rumored to be in the works several years ago. Its impending (and long overdue) DVD release is cause for celebration. But what to make of this affiliated record?
First things first: it’s not a soundtrack. It’s “music inspired by the film”. That’s different. In this case, what it means is that it’s a dozen Scott Walker songs recorded by other folks. But instead of a big-name tribute, it’s a low-profile affair; the most famous name here is Laurie Anderson, who at this point may or may not be better known than Walker himself.
I’m tempted to draw an immediate comparison between 30 Century Man and the soundtrack to Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man from a few years back. In both cases, an iconic figure from the ’60s (as far as casual listeners are concerned) is treated to a series of hip cover versions in conjunction with a documentary that attempts to get to the heart of their artistry. In Cohen’s case, the interpreters were at least somewhat famous, and the covers possessed a unity of sound, having been recorded live in concert with different singers fronting a single band. Fortunately for all of us, the performances were almost uniformly excellent, managing to capture the essence of Cohen’s songs while sounding nothing like the original recordings.
The Walker covers on 30 Century Man are also often radical reimaginings of the source material. And the record certainly has a feel, although not as organic as the Cohen soundtrack. 30 Century Man sounds like it’s swathed in gauze, and most of it is impossibly slow and quiet. There’s a tendency to associate Walker with quiet, drizzly nights and too much wine, and I’ll admit to listening to him under those conditions. But it’s a little quizzical, if you think about it, because there’s so much bombast in his records.
It makes more sense to blast “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” from the car windows than to snuggle under a blanket with it. Dot Allison, though, takes the latter approach, turning the song lush and dreamy. It’s not necessarily a better approach, or a worse one, although there’s something to be said for the shocking contrasts of Walker’s original, with its tip-toeing verses and explosive chorus. Allison’s reading is much more even, so it’s less dramatic, and in that sense it’s emblematic of the less effective performances on 30 Century Man. I’d also throw Sally Norvell’s take on “Big Louise” into that category, not because of a stupid lyric change — the iconic “fire escape in the sky” becomes “fire escape in Times Square” — but because the simplified arrangement strips the song of its crushing sorrow and makes it merely sad.
Successful or not, you certainly can’t accuse most of the performers on 30 Century Man of taking the easy way out. Ulrich Schnauss turns “It’s Raining Today” into a pretty electronic number, eliminating all lyrics except for the title phrase, which is sung with an evocative underwater effect. Saint Etienne finds a melody in “Manhattan”, from Walker’s extremely avant garde Tilt, and wins bonus points for venturing out of the comfort zone of Walker’s ’60s work, i.e. the period with all the pretty songs. Peter Broderick and Stephanie Dosen strip the country instrumentation from a couple of Scott 4 numbers: Broderick does “Duchess” a cappella, and Dosen turns “Rhymes of Goodbye” into an early-’70s Neil Young piano ballad.
My favorite of these 12 interpretations is the last one, Little Annie & Paul Walfisch’s take on “Such a Small Love”. What a strange croak Little Annie has, what a rough sound comes out of that sporadically strummed acoustic guitar, and what a coup it was to have a xylophone playing the orchestral lines during the chorus! The vocal, in particular, is far less conventionally beautiful than anything else on 30 Century Man, but it’s probably the most captivating. No wonder they stuck this one at the end.
The covers on 30 Century Man probably won’t spark a Walker revival, but for fans of his work — particularly the first four solo albums — this is the first opportunity we’ve had to hear other folks tackle these songs. It could’ve been a longer set, and a more varied one, but as it is it’s pretty nice, and a worthwhile complement to the documentary.