Monday, April 1, 2019

RIP Scott Walker

Scott Walker annoyingly chose the week I was away on a trip to shuffle off this mortal coil, denying me the chance to pay tribute to one of my favorite musicians - one whom I've never quite had the opportunity to write at length about, somehow. In fact, the only times I've written about him have been either ludicrously brief (the micro-review for Blender  reproduced here without its grade out of five, or its 'pick hit' tune guidance, but with its 'in bold' dek, penned by me as if with a gun to the head) or it's been tangential (in the Sight and Sound piece about rock documentaries, so the angle was more on the approach and execution than the artist per se). Nonetheless here they are below. I do wonder how I would fare given an unconfined  occasion to address his life's work...  There's an impenetrable mystery and opacity to his songs, a secretiveness and privacy...  I can't help thinking that writing about the first four solo albums, or Climate of Hunter  (these are the ones I love and listen to with active pleasure), at length, would result in bombastic vagaries.  There are certainly some other artists who fall into that adored-but-daunting category (Arthur Lee, for one). But I daresay I would come up with something.

Scott Walker
The Drift
Blender (2007)

by Simon Reynolds

 Exquisitely poised torment from the cult crooner, his first record in a decade.

Scott Walker’s legend is based on his four late 1960s solo albums, an astonishing body-of-song that bridged the seemingly vast gulf between Righteous Brothers-style pop balladry and the anguished avant-gardism of European film-makers like Ingmar Bergman. Walker is something like a cinematographer of sound, using dense orchestration, imagistic lyrics, and, not least, his own elegantly harrowed voice, to paint the sort of motion pictures that trouble you long after you’ve left the theater.  Some songs on The Drift (his first album since 1995’s Tilt) are inspired by specific historical incidents--Mussolini’s lover deciding to be executed by his side on “Clara,” a lonely Elvis talking to his stillborn twin on “Jesse”. But mostly the lyric shards that issue from the 63-year old Walker’s peerless mouth--“the slimy stars,” “nose holes caked in black cocaine”--conjure abstract scenarios of crisis and corruption, dread and decay. From “Jolson and Jones” (its chorus, “curare!”, is the name of a poison that relaxes your muscles until you die of asphyxiation) to the hair-raising cackles of gargoyle laughter in “The Escape”, The Drift is unremittingly somber. It makes Radiohead’s Kid A look like a walk in an extremely sunny park. Persevere, though, and you’ll find that The Drift is that most rare and unnatural thing--a nightmare you look forward to repeating. 

Excerpt on 30th Century Man, the Scott Walker documentary, from 
TOMBSTONE BLUES: The Music Documentary Boom
Sight & Sound, May 2007 (full piece here)

by Simon Reynolds

Documentaries about scenes or sounds are far out-numbered by ones about individual creative units (a singer, musician, band…), presumably because they’re easier to make and easier to sell. Scott Walker: 30th Century Man and Joe Strummer: the Future Is Unwritten are superior examples of the rock doc as heroic biography. Both cleave to the “talking heads plus” formula but bring plenty of imaginative flair to the plus aspect.

In 30th Century Man, director Stephen Kijak frames the hermetic and hermit-like Walker as a mystery man prone to disappearing for decades at a time. Right at the start, David Bowie—the film’s executive producer and a Walker fan ever since he dated an ex-girlfriend of the singer and was forced to hear the former heart-throb crooner’s astonishing avant-MOR solo albums—asks rhetorically “who knows anything about Scott Walker?”. The doc then proceeds to shed a fair amount of light without truly penetrating the inner core of darkness that motivates this driven and uncompromising artist. 

Inclined to avoid media attention, Walker obliges with a rare on-camera interview, and comes over accommodating and articulate yet ultimately elusive. (He’s also remarkably ageless, at 63 looking uncannily like Beck’s elder brother). Associates and admirers (including Johnny Marr, Brian Eno, and Jarvis Cocker) generate a steady flow of recollections and insights, and we witness scenes from the sessions for 2006’s The Drift, Walker’s third comeback album, including the bizarre spectacle of a side of meat being used as percussion. The archival material is top-notch, ranging from Arnie Potts, a Walker memorabilia collector, guiding us through his treasure, to vintage TV appearances, to an open letter printed in a pop magazine and written by 14 fans disappointed by the avant-garde turn in the singer’s post-Walker Bros work: “don’t underestimate our force… the end is nigh, you’re way off course… your reign is over--goodbye Scott.”

One effective Kijak device is filming the famous fans listening to key songs, catching their facial reactions and off-the-cuff thoughts. Alison Goldfrapp, of all people, nails the quality of Walker’s voice circa his second comeback album Tilt-- “it’s beautiful and unpleasant at the same time...” . And you gotta love Marc Almond for bravely admitting to loathing that 1995 album: “ I went to the playback and everyone was sitting silent and reverent and I thought ‘is it just me or is this awful?’ 

The solitary blunder on Kijak’s part is using cheesy abstract computer animations to backdrop some of Walker’s most sublime songs, like “Boy Child” and “The Electrician”. 30th Century Man is genuinely informative, with plenty of revelations about Scott’s working methods, but in the end you don’t really understand what impelled his journey from Righteous Brothers-style stardom to a solo career whose ambition was seemingly to fuse Nelson Riddle and Ingmar Bergman. There’s a passing reference to a lifetime of suffering nightmares, and a palpable sense--transmitted in just the delivery of the song “Rosary” on Later with Jools-- of a profound sense of human abjection (something strengthened by one commentator’s comparison of Walker’s work with Francis Bacon’s). But in the end Scott remains an enigma, which is perhaps how it should be. 

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