Monday, March 25, 2019

Farewell, Scott Walker

"I was sleeping the sleep
of the dead.
When the spade
hit my
poor greywacke head.

Woke me."

Scott Walker, from The Boston Green Head, 2016

I've long taken comfort just knowing Scott Walker was out there, like a NASA probe on a 30-year trajectory to unknown realms. He was biking around London, his adopted city, thinking about Elvis Presley's stillborn twin, villains and heroes of the 20th Century (Mussolini, Ceausescu, Brando), or of the distant past (Herod), or even imagining an inner life for an artifact from Egypt's 30th dynasty, a portrait sculpture of a priest known as The Boston Green Head. No matter how deep or dark the material he mined, there was always a dimension of humanity and a critical connection between the intellect and the emotions. 

Albums would arrive like transmitted downloads of information from a distant planet, usually after a gap of more than a decade. Each one created its own sonic universe, whether the disjointed but sleek art rock of Climate Of Hunter (1984), the even more abstract Tilt (1995), the infamous pounded meat of The Drift (2006), the nearly-Viennese art song of Bish Bosch (2012), or the soaring and gnashing guitars (courtesy drone-rock band Sunn O)))) of Soused (2014). 

One of many remarkable things about the career of the man born Noel Scott Engel is that those five records, which could have represented a complete - and completely fascinating - discography for most artists, were merely a segment of his achievement. A quick look at trending Twitter gives a hint of the byways he traveled since first singing lead on a Walker Brothers song in 1965. You have the fans remembering Walker as their first crush, most of them from Britain, where The Walker Brothers had their greatest success. For a brief period their fan club outnumbered that of The Beatles! Then you have art rockers of all stripes, from Brian Eno to Marc Almond to Thom Yorke, paying tribute to his influence on their work. It's well-known that David Bowie was a huge fan, covering Nite Flights and distilling some of his hero's dark essence on late masterpieces like Heat from The Next Day.

There was also an extraordinary run of orchestral pop albums, starting with Scott (1967), which found Walker not only expanding his unique gifts as an interpreter, chiefly of Jacques Brel, but also as a writer, creating new standards like Plastic Palace People and It's Raining Today. That period ended with 1970's Til The Band Comes In and has long been lionized, most recently in the remarkable 2017 London Proms concert, The Songs Of Scott Walker (1967-1970). The show found notable singers such as Jarvis Cocker, Susanne Sundfør and John Grant interpreting a selection of songs - handpicked by Walker - in front of a large orchestra. It's the kind of tribute that has yet to be even attempted here, in his country of birth.

We also have yet to fully grasp what Walker himself called his "wilderness years," when he seemed to develop writer's block and sought success in light rock and country. He reformed The Walker Brothers, releasing three albums, and put out a string of records that are mostly out of print. I've always loved his silken take on Tom Rush's No Regrets, from The Walker Brothers album of the same name, but one listen to his devastatingly suave version of Bill Withers' Use Me from Stretch (1973) is all I need to know that further investigation is required! His four compositions on Nite Flights (1978), the final Walker Brothers album, brought him out of the wilderness and pointed the way forward to Climate Of Hunter and the rest of his groundbreaking albums.

In recent years, he had been developing his skills as a soundtrack composer, most successfully for The Childhood Of A Leader in 2016. That fine score once again ignited my hopes that the classical community would recognize the opportunity presented by his catalog and start incorporating some of his latter-day songs into their programming. I can't help but hear his flamboyant and pitch-black material resonating with the music of Missy Mazzoli, Du Yun and others. Sundog, a book of selected lyrics published by Faber & Faber last year, also allowed us to contemplate Walker as a literary figure, marveling in his Beckett-like ability to shift from absurdity to sorrow, and from cutting sarcasm to plainspoken words of love.

So, although the man himself has left this earthly plane, there are continents yet to be fully mapped on the world he created over more than a half-century of music-making. The best atlas to date is the wonderful documentary 30 Century Man, which featured interviews with Walker and many others on whom he had a profound impact. Perhaps we will even be gifted with a new album, as I've heard from a few sources that he had one nearly completed, with his perfectionism being the only obstacle to its release. If the musical settings match the power of the six new songs included in Sundog, it will rank with his finest work. To whet your appetite, I'll leave you with an excerpt from Attaché:

"Of the night

there is scant to relay.

The moon's cervical smear
refuses to appear
and give notice
to my occupied building. 

Of the world
as it's fading away.

Not a whisper.
Not a whisper."

This playlist has 20 of my favorite songs written by Scott Walker from across his career - take the journey. 

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Note: all lyrics copyright Scott Walker, 2018, as printed in Sundog (Faber & Faber, 2018)

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