Extensions Through Dimensions: A Scott Walker Tribute
March 26, 2019 | by C.M. Crockford
It's raining today and Scott Walker is dead. I can't help but feel that these two facts are connected, after years of listening to his music swell and ripple in the air. Transmissions from a dark and mysterious world close to ours, with strings spreading like ink on a page, a voice that was gorgeously apocalyptic. Like David Bowie, who was obsessed with him, Walker’s imagination was alien, beyond traditional boundaries.
And god how he crossed those lines. Even when he was first in the Walker Brothers, a 60s pop group with a British fanclub bigger than the Rolling Stones, he was writing songs like “Orpheus”: “Well, I'm back to make your face / So it smiles once again / And harpoon you like a whale / With a bent and rusty nail.” Nothing in the lyric feels right or good or like anything you've ever heard before. By the end of his life, his music used simple, stark phrases that became tire irons, striking the listener over and over into terror. “A beating would do me a world of good.” “Pow pow.” “Blowing up bullfrogs with a straw.”
Those later albums, collaborations, and film scores — The Drift, Vox Lux, Soused, made with Sunn O))), among others — had completely and absolutely broken from traditional pop structure and instrumentation. They continued his preoccupations with violence and totalitarianism while featuring the sounds of meat being punched, industrial music filtered through a Euro-American haze. Here was music of literal butchery. Of numbing loss and death. He had discovered something entirely new in composition while still developing his principal fixation: mystery and beauty through horror.
Even as a young man, going solo with his own series of Scott albums (Scott 1-4), Walker's orchestral pop was eerie, curious. He covered Jacques Brel with frequency, not just the beloved “My Death” but things like the grotesque (and fucking hilarious) “Next,” singing about gonorrhea and dogs without winking at the listener. And his original songs slowly took over the records, deepening in sound and scope.
At first, original compositions like “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” felt like the next step after Brel, of the same kind of lush and artificial power, still functional MOR records. (And to be clear they're amazing regardless.) Then came tracks like “It's Raining Today” on Scott 3, a ballad with no traditional chord progression, Walker singing of heartbreak against shimmering dissonant instrumentation. Walker's music was always cinematic but this was weirder, evocative, unlike anything released in the 1960's by a pop star. The arthouse and kitchen sink films that gripped him were coming to sonic life. There were only three covers on 3 compared to the eight on 2.
Then Scott 4 happens. It comes out six months after, was all originals, and it was a goddamn masterpiece.
Scott 4 is 30-plus minutes of music struggling to push past pop and into something different, all written by a geeky existentialist concerned with isolation, war, dictatorship, and the ultimate search for meaning in a universe not carved out by any god. “There's nothing within, but within says a voice / That's still my Empire / And I've got a choice,” he sings on the closer “Rhymes of Goodbye,” as close to an early Walker thesis if there ever was one. Here was a musician at a crossroads, his songs finding the esoteric boundary between soft pop-rock and surrealism and dancing within the barrier. Of course it sold badly, but it slowly found champions including Julian Cope, Bowie, and Jarvis Cocker among others.
I'll try to skip ahead of his alcohol-soaked 70s records and reunion with the Walker Brothers, moving to the Brothers' last album together, Nite Flights. Walker writes four songs here (the others written by his bandmates are, well, not great), all of them again pushing past pop but going for aggressive dance beats in a post-disco world. Walker's voice is as gorgeous as ever but he had honed himself to sound more operatic and disturbed, perhaps in response to Bowie's vocal manipulation on Low and “Heroes”. He had once again rediscovered his creativity, the imagination that created albums unlike any of his “authentic” roots-rock contemporaries.
The last song by him on Nite Flights, “The Electrician,” is the culmination of everything he'd been building towards. If Walker's journey is of a musician breaking the barriers of pop stardom, finding true artistry in the life of the mind, this was his most important break. He at last was moving all the way past traditional pop music and into unconventional, scary-beautiful avant garde sound, the harmonies taking the 50s doo-wop style into uncanny horror, violent torture described with sexual relish (“If I jerk the handle, jerk the handle, you'll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me” — shades of Michael Flynn's Dispatches scoffing at the idea that war isn't glorious), Herrmann Psycho strings giving way to flamenco guitar and ecstatic drums then turning right back around to fear, as if pain and pleasure are inherently mixed, ending in uneasy resolution. It is one of the greatest songs ever written, and Scott Walker was a goddamn genius.
He disappeared again after Nite Flights, in what became a continued pattern up until the mid-2000's, making albums every 10 years or so, each time the compositions getting harsher and stranger. And now his journey is ended. Leaving behind those of us who became obsessed fans, entranced with a specific sound and mood: of the night, of European cool and American passion, of political Terror and control, of kitchen sink drama, of cinema, of the exotic world, of existential restlessness, of a man whose gaze was fixed somewhere the rest of us could never follow. Of Scott Walker.
Have a good night, Mr. Walker.