From the sublime to the grotesque: Scott Walker in 10 songs


Our music icons always get a few extra gravitas points for evolving with the times — but Scott Walker’s 50-year journey from romantic crooner to avant-garde pioneer is one of the most jarring story arcs in pop history.

Say the name Scott Walker to a group of random strangers and they’ll each have their own version of the truth (Republican governor Scott Walker doesn’t count). For starters, some will say Scott Walker was the handsome sixties dandy fronting the Walker Brothers, singing lovelorn ballads like The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore and Make It Easy On Yourself.

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Scott Walker in 1968

For others, he’s the genius behind the late 60s records Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4 — a flawless run of four albums that mixed elegant orchestral pop with references to existential cinema, sexual decadence, neo-Stalinism and the darkest corners of Jacques Brel’s mind in his many interpretations of the Belgian singer’s songbook.

In the 70s, he tried to claw back some cash with albums of easy listening fluff and a cheesy ‘Scott Sings’ TV show, before retreating back into his shell, bar four tracks on The Walker Brothers’ final album Nite Flights in 1978.

Since the mid-80s, and most notably on the albums Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006) and Bish Bosch (2012), Walker has gradually hammered away the last remnants of conventional rock or pop, with jarring, bleak strings, hellish musique concrete and obsessive studio experimentation. His rich baritone has shifted to a unique and often frightening interpretation of opera, and his subject matter regularly veers towards the grotesque.

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Walker in the studio in 2005

Walker has just released the soundtrack to the film The Childhood of a Leader, a shrieking, violent score for a different type of horror film — the story of a fictional nine-year-old fascist dictator in waiting.

The latest version of Scott Walker mightn’t be the most pleasant, and won’t be easily packaged for a nice Christmas box set, but it’s the version that’s here to stay. Here’s an attempt to scratch the surface of one of the most confounding canons in popular music.

It’s Raining Today (1969)
On the face of it, the opening track on Scott 3 is a beautiful symphonic ballad, with Scott’s heartbreaking baritone and orchestral arrangement evoking the glistening of raindrops on a train window.

But there’s something about the dissonant strings that lodge in your gut through the whole song — a precursor to the prominent dread in his later records.

The Seventh Seal (1969)
Walker has said his main inspiration is European art-house film or cinematic approaches to sound, and this is his most explicit example. The song is a direct retelling of the iconic scene in Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film The Seventh Seal, in which Max Von Sydow’s medieval knight plays chess with death.

Despite the existentialist overtones and the plague-ridden backdrop of 14th century Sweden, the arrangement is impossibly elegant, with liberal tambourine, lush strings and mariachi trumpet.   

Boy Child (1969)
The mid-point of Scott 4 is Walker’s most objectively beautiful solo song. It’s serene and solemn, with a simple dulcimer melody following Walker’s baritone, and orchestral swells that wouldn’t sound out of place in an old silver screen melodrama.

Despite its hymn-like grace, it’s not about that Boy Child — it sways along with vague yet evocative images of shadows, mirrors “forgotten courtyards” and “swollen eyes”.

Nite Flights (1978)
From the era of chart disco, Nite Flights has a pretty stomping beat and a simple bassline that could easily be nicked for a house sample. But jagged, processed guitars and strings slice through the whole track, knocking it back off the dancefloor. Lyrics like “It’s so cold/ The dark dug up by dogs/ The stitches torn and broke” make it even less of a floor-filler.

Walker wrote four tracks for the Walker Brothers’ final album Nite Flights, and it’s obvious he was shedding his crooner skin even more so than on the Scott 1-4 albums. He’d never record with The Walker Brothers again.  

The Electrician (1978)
With its chilly sustained high-pitched synth chord and electronic bass pulse, the intro to The Electrician could fit on any John Carpenter film score.

The Electrician marks the exact pivot point between old Scott and new. There’s the underlying horror and the introduction of his now-customary strained vocal style as he wails: “He’s drilling through the spiritus sanctus,” assuming the role of a torturer.

Then halfway through, the song gives way to one of the most luscious passages on any Walker tune, with sweeping strings, Spanish guitar and harp, before we’re back on the dark side again.

Track Three (1984)
The 1984 album Climate of Hunter was an odd one — trademark Walker dissonance, disorientating song structures and ever-cryptic lyrics, but all through a blockbuster 80s studio filter of fretless bass, processed guitars and echoey snare thumps. Billy Ocean is even on it.

Track Three is the most ‘pop’ Walker has been in the last 40 years — but it’s all relative, remember. It’s contorted avant-rock with a similar metallic sheen to Bowie’s Berlin albums and a swirling synth drone. The squealing blues guitar solo that comes out of nowhere just adds to the weirdness. A major label deal meant he did have at least one painful interview to promote the new single.

Farmer in the city (1995)
In 1995, Walker’s evolution from proto-boyband crooner to jarring avant-garde composer and songwriter was fully realised on the album Tilt.

Farmer in the City is a harrowing track to open the record, with stark strings underpinning a lament about the death of iconic Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered by being run over repeatedly with his own car.

In the era of numbskull Britpop and the final dregs of grunge, Tilt took guitar music close to its outer limits.

Clara (2006)
In the 2007 documentary Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, we get an insight into Walker’s obsessive recording techniques — notably getting one of his musicians to punch a side of pork to evoke the sound of a mob beating the hanging bodies of Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci, along with other leading fascists.

Described by Walker as “a fascist love song”, it’s one of his most grotesque works, with churning guitars, tribal drums, unspooling film reels and odd spoken word interludes describing the bodies swinging in the public square in Milan.

Jolson and Jones (2006)
This track on The Drift has the single most terrifying moment I’ve ever heard on a record — a donkey braying in sheer panic amid hammering percussion and a weird rustling noise that sounds like a thousand cockroaches. It’s also got Walker’s most psychotic chant, as he howls repeatedly: “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway!”

The 30th Century Man documentary shows how Walker got the colossal battering sound — repeatedly dropping a concrete block on a 5ft by 5ft wooden box he had built in the studio.

Brando (2014)
In 2014 Scott Walker paired with drone metal icons Sunn O))) for the biggest extreme music wet dream in recent years. But somehow on LP Soused, Sunn O))) managed to rub out some of the furthest outliers in Walker’s sonic pallette, after the near-impenetrable 2012 album Bish Bosch.

So while much of Soused is bowels-of-the earth heavy, it was a lot more linear, even perversely catchy.

Brando is punctuated with whip cracks recorded by the actual British bullwhip champion, as Scott howls operatically over grating, sludgy down-tuned riffs, making oblique references to Marlon Brando.  

Originally appeared in buzz.ie