n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
With 4AD slated this autumn to release Scott Walker's first album of new material in ten years (apparently with a Liz Fraser cameo!), I figured it was time for me to finally hear the iconic singer/songwriter whose name I'd seen floated about for years. So I had my friend Jeff, a massive Walker fan, burn me as much as he could, and I sat down last week to give it a listen. The records I was able to dig into for this article were the first four solo records (Scott 1, 2, 3, and 4) and, for variety, the more recent Tilt.
Now I'd long suspected that Walker might appeal to me, given my understanding that he wrote off-kilter orchestral pop songs and was influenced by pre-rock'n'roll singers; I imagined something like a bedroom lounge crooner. I also knew that he'd had several top 10 hits in the U.K. as a member of the Walker Brothers, and was even considered a teen idol in the mid-1960s—but I figured, because of his underground reputation, that his solo recordings bore as much resemblance to that early material as "Surf's Up" does to "Surfin' USA."
So I was admittedly surprised that so many songs on those first four records are not just "orchestral" but positively Nelson Riddle-esque, with cascading strings, boisterous brass, and cymbal crashes. And that Walker's voice is not a cracked attempt at a croon but the real thing: a confident, full-bodied baritone that could have thrived in a 1960s Broadway production of Man of La Mancha. These kinds of dramatic arrangements, I learned, can create some unexpected pleasures, such as the regal, fluttering horns on "Mathilde" or the overall symphonic wooziness on "The Big Hurt" (both on Scott 1). And when he strips down too far, as on "30 Century Man" (now perhaps Walker's most familiar song, thanks to its recent appearance in The Life Aquatic), he loses some of his theatrical charm.
But there were times, while listening to some of the less captivating songs among Walker's early catalogue, that I wondered what exactly elevated him above other easy-listening purveyors of the time, who also presumably performed material by the likes of Bacharach, Mancini, and Previn. (I also hadn't been aware that he interpreted others' songs so often—not that it matters, of course. I'm no rockist!) Some would probably say that part of it's his unique association with French composer Jacques Brel, nine of whose songs appear over the course of Walker's first three albums. (Best of these are the frenzied "Jackie"—if only for the refrain "cute in a stupid-ass way"—and the wry, accordion-drenched "Funeral Tango.") And part of it's no doubt the lyrical skill of his originals, which range from the dense carnivalesque narrative of "The Girls From the Streets" to the almost haiku-like "Winter Night."
But while I appreciate all that, I still wouldn't say that any of Walker's first four albums are solid from beginning to end, given the inevitable presence on each of a couple of unremarkable, soporific tunes. (Scott 4 probably comes the closest for me, as it's the most musically eclectic and the rhythmic component is more pronounced than usual.) I would, however, be able to make a pretty great single-disc compilation out of them, and I can tell you two songs that would definitely make the cut. "Plastic Palace People," from Scott 2, is notable for its tripartite structure: The gauzy, dreamy prologue gives way to a mellow, sardonic chorus—I particularly love the way Walker intones the word "Alice," as if suddenly realizing the stupidity of the rhyme—and then a claustrophobic section on which his multi-tracked voice is eerily delayed. "Hero of the War," from Scott 4, is an ironically bouncy number about a damaged war vet; it's refreshingly atypical for Walker in that it's driven by a rollicking acoustic guitar and concludes with the singer scatting (seriously, he's all "dwee-doo-wee"!) through the fadeout.
While these four albums are all more or less of a piece, it's strange to think of Tilt as even coming from the same performer. I must admit, I wasn't able to give Walker's 1995 release as much attention as the early works, but that's partially because it necessarily requires more patience. (Efforts to listen to it on a crowded city bus the other day were largely unsuccessful.) In any event, the most striking aspect of the album is that Walker's voice has shifted from its assured MOR delivery to an ethereal goth-operatic style. Which does sound odd: during "Farmer in the City," the album's opening track, I actually pictured Walker under a single spotlight, crying in white makeup. But that affect is also very much in line with more poetically abstract lyrics, as well as arrangements that owe almost nothing to conventional orchestration and instead focus on throbbing beats and a slow industrial thrum. In fact, today I realized that much of the album, especially a song like "Bolivia '95," with its spacious clamor, suggests early Suicide covering late Talk Talk!
My first impression of Tilt was that it was perhaps too weird, which is funny, because I was originally disappointed that Walker's 1960s albums weren't weird enough. But I've since discovered the nuances in his early work, and the more I listen to Tilt, the more I look forward to sinking into its textured landscape. The new album should be a treat.