Scott Walker Makes It Uneasy On You

Apr 17th, 2015 | By | Category: I Heard the Strangest Thing, Reviews

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One of the many great joys of listening to music is the discovery of something new. Of course what’s new for one listener isn’t always so fresh to another. Much depends on one’s willingness to explore. Those whose exposure is greater are certainly going to hear more new sounds than those whose exposure is narrower. Still, even with self-imposed limits, there exists that ecstatic feeling upon hearing something new, something fresh. For those of us who deliberately seek out something beyond our usual listening habits, the rewards can be invigorating, but the challenge is not without limitations. Sometimes we find ourselves exploring areas of sound that are merely just that, sounds. Discovering something that moves us musically and still fascinates us with its originality is an aim some of us like to take on, even if only occasionally, in hopes of catching that mind-blowing moment again.

I remember reading an album review of Tilt by Scott Walker many years ago. I did not know Scott Walker’s music before reading the piece until it mentioned that he was 1/3 of a group called the Walker Brothers, none of whom were actually brothers. I did recall that group name and remembered that they had a few hits in the mid-1960s. Songs such as “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “Make It Easy On Yourself” were both top 20 hits that I remembered hearing on the radio. What struck me about the review was that I was having a hard time squaring the pop music hits (which by the way are great songs) with the experimental music described on Tilt. I made a mental note to look for a copy of Tilt during my many excursions to record stores. Sure enough, about a week later I found a used copy and eagerly took it home for a listen.

Before I go on about the album a brief history of Scott Walker may be in order. Scott Walker, real name Noel Scott Engel, made his mark in pop music with The Walker Brothers and as a solo artist in the mid to late 1960s. While all three members of The Walker Brothers are American, they relocated to the UK and it is there that they met great success.  Over time the band began to experience diminishing commercial success and by 1968 they disbanded. Scott went on to a highly successful solo career in the UK releasing four extraordinary albums, simply titled Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4. Each of these albums showed a gradual shift from pop idol to serious musician. Scott continued to release several solo albums with less and less commercial success. In 1975 he agreed to reform The Walker Brothers and recorded three further albums with the band. This culminated in the release of Nite Flights, a commercial flop, though critically acclaimed. The weak sales of Nite Flights effectively ended The Walker Brothers for good. At this point Scott goes silent. No new recordings, no concerts, nothing. Then in 1984 he releases Climate Of The Hunter. It receives a warm critical reception but is a much more complex piece of music than anything he had done up to that point. It resembles very little of  the elegant pop music of The Walker Brothers or his early solo albums and it too fails to generate much commercial acclaim. This is followed once again by silence lasting 11 years until the release of Tilt. All of this I learned after hearing Tilt. What stands out most to me after learning of Walker’s earlier career and then the course he was to take is just how rare it is for a hugely successful commercial singer to transition to a serious composer of extremely difficult, intense and avant-garde music. This was the equivalent of say Tom Jones transitioning to Philip Glass. Walker would not release any new music after Tilt for another 11 years. When he does return he releases Drift, an album that goes even further than Tilt. Drift is followed another six years later with Bish Bosch and then just last year Soused, a collaboration with the band Sunn O))). Remarkably at the age of 72 he continues to explore and push the boundaries of music. Now on to Tilt.

It is difficult for me to fully describe what I heard on that initial listen. I was dumbfounded, confused, astonished and floored at the same time.  I’ve listened to some strange music in my time but none had prepared me for what I heard on Tilt. This was music that was haunting, frightening, bewildering, and deliberately obtuse in ways I’ve never encountered before. The most immediate impact the album had on me was Walker’s extraordinary voice. I honestly feel that Scott Walker possesses one of the  most gorgeous voices I’ve ever heard. It’s a powerful baritone that could rival any number of well-known vocalists from Sinatra to Bowie, in fact Bowie has been a long time fan of Walker and wanted to work with him in the late ’70s only to find Walker uninterested and in recluse.

The opening song, “Farmer In The City (Remembering Pasolini),” is a slow eerie tune constructed around crescendo of strings. The song is a reflection on the murder of Italian poet and director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Walker, in a near sobbing voice, intones lyrics that are a series of images evoking Pasolini’s life and death and even using some phrases from Pasolini’s poem “One Of Many Epilogues.” The effect is powerful and grave. Musically, it is a somber song that is not entirely inaccessible. It is Walker’s voice and the lyrics, however, that create a remoteness and leaves one feeling uneasy. The intensity is increased with the next track, “Cockfighter.” Once again Walker utilizes fragmentary lyrics, borrowing excerpts from the trial of Queen Caroline and the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Under the vocals Walker unleashes a series of metallic and industrial bursts disrupting the opera like vocals. It is a harrowing piece of music. The following track, “Bounce See Bouncer” is a stark minimalistic piece featuring little more than a drum pulse along with what sounds like a distant clang of chimes over which Walker croons lyrics like, “Spared/I’ve been spared/All the powder on a trumpet of Gabriel/Don’t play that song for me/You won’t play that song for me.” Once more the power of the song is Walker’s compelling voice and his delivery.

Throughout the remainder of the album Walker’s quasi-operatic voice hovers over dark minimal sounds or lush orchestration. There is a dread that lies  beneath the fiber of each song. A threatening presence lurks within the music. It is weighted with pain and agony, struggle and turbulence, unrest and upheaval. And yet despite all of that it is strangely seductive and beautiful. It is truly difficult to explain how something so anxiety driven can still be so captivating, so attractive. And yet it is – at least for me. It obviously is not an album to enter into lightly and it certainly demands full attention. If you’re willing to go there, willing to embrace the unusual, and accept the abandonment of a verse chorus verse structure, you may find Tilt as deeply rewarding as I did.

Details:

  • Artist: Scott Walker
  • Title: Tilt
  • Year of release: 1995
  • Year of first hearing by writer: 1995
  • Label: Drag City
  • Format listened to: CD
  • Track Listing
  • Purchase from Amazon: Tilt

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One Comment to “Scott Walker Makes It Uneasy On You”

  1. Billy Francis says:

    I’m the only one left alive! I’m the only one left alive!

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