For the second time in as many weeks, I delved into an artist’s work not long before his death. Savoring the mediation on medieval Provençe called The Mays of Ventadorn and thumbing through one of his final collections The Shadow of Sirius, I awoke to the news about poet W.S. Merwin. At the same time, I had acquired a rather expensive (for 2019) used copy of The Climate of Hunter. I’d heard it in dribs over the years. I relish uneven accommodations to mainstream taste; years after admiring Scott 4 (1969) and learning how to listen to Tilt (1995), I needed to catch up. Now I have all the time necessary.
Scott Walker was not a fringe artist in 1984; a scan of the credits reveals the names of Mark Knopfler and Billy Ocean, flashed like FBI badges, both having or about to have their greatest pop moments. If Walker intended The Climate of Hunter as his contribution to the MTV-indebted New Pop explosion, then it failed. On ballads “Rawhide” and “Sleepwalkers Woman” the climaxes don’t happen in the expected places if they happen at all. The squeezed plushness of the American-born Walker’s vocal approach, like Edith Evans singing through a paper towel roll, enforces a waiting game; with a voice this unusual, this mannered, there had to be a payoff. Meanwhile the rhythm section burbled and rumbled at a discreet, discrete remove, as if an engineer happened to record it. At all times the use of strings was unnerving: while Walker stayed in place, they screeched like a replay of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score; when Walker chose to keep up with the bass and drums, the strings hung fire.
Similar dynamics applied to Tilt‘s “Manhattan,” in which sustained Bach-like organ chords keep up anxiety levels. Other instruments, unidentifiable or avoiding their usual functions, buzzed — “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation,” in Derek Walmsley’s perfect description. When Pulp hired Walker to produce their final album We Love Life, it’s clear that the band wanted to organize “The Trees” around these tensions. On the title track Jarvis Cocker’s performance demonstrated why Pulp wasn’t Scott Walker: it does build to a climax, a glorious one. In Walker’s later music it would have been a principle betrayed, a concession to a mass taste he hadn’t courted since the sixties. Who needs a boring old guitar solo when a donkey’s bray will do?
About the Walker Brothers material and Nite Flights in particular I will cede insight and knowledge to Chris O’Leary, whose extensive writing on Walker’s influence on David Bowie (and Bowie’s own generosity acknowledging the influence) persuaded me to give Walker another chance. I have not much else to write about the albums released after Tilt except to note his needling score for The Childhood of a Leader, directed by Vox Lux‘s Brady Corbet, in 2015. But let me return to Scott 4, on which I’ve spent most of my time. Drenched in a chansonnier tradition that ran parallel to rock through the sixties and into the next decade, Scott 4 adduces Jacques Brel, Dionne Warwick, the Richard Harris of “MacArthur Park.” A stately collection, “classy” in the booboisie sense; also, louche and mildly decadent in the manner of fading European nobility persisting into the Nixon and Heath era. Walker rarely allowed him a couplet as plummy as the following in “Duchess”: “With your shimmering dress/It says no, it says yes.” Male chorales compete with strings in the perfumed air of “The Old Man’s Back Again,” in which, speaking of faded glory, the ghosts of Stalin, Dostoevsky, and Voznesensky insist on being remembered. Ian McCullough and Pet Shop Boys no doubt wore out their vinyl copies.
All this, plus, to use the Randall Jarrell method of listing praise, “Two Ragged Soldiers,” “Plastic Palace People,” “It’s Raining Today,” “Fat Mama Kick,” and cover material of marvelous fluency and vitality. To say Walker toyed with camp is to accuse water of being wet. Camp is irony at its most equable. When Walker unleashed that vibrato on an unsuspecting syllable, he called attention to a limited physical range that was determined to break through emotionally anyway. Sound – the suggestive possibilities of phonemes; the dynamic on those later albums whereby the spaces between instruments and voice had a disjunctive power – intoxicated him. In the songbooks of Bob Crewe and Leiber-Stoller he saw unexplored corners of weirdness: the weirdness of a David Lynch movie in which an old man drives a lawnmower across the verdant lawns of rural America and neighbors say howdy. Scott Walker’s corpus will continue to fascinate the devoted and to elude casual listeners. At his best he alerts listeners to how fluttering things, to quote a poet whose composed, cologned mien hid a musky imagination, have so distinct a shade.