Appreciation: Scott Walker, who turned his back on commercial pop music to become an acclaimed experimental composer
The experimental singer and composer Scott Walker, whose death was reported Monday, carved a remarkable musical path through the past six decades of music, one that commenced in the late 1950s and early 1960s with an avalanche of pop songs.
Walker, whose death was confirmed by his record label, 4AD, was 76. No cause was given.
Across the decades, Walker tapped his artistic ambition to spin his work so far afield of modern popular music — in process inspiring artists including David Bowie, Marc Almond (Soft Cell) and Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) — that near the end he’d entered another orbit altogether. “I’m not even sure if they are songs,” Walker told an interviewer of the work on his 2012 album, “Bish Bosch.” He had a point.
Most famously, on his baffling, aggressively dissonant work “Clara,” he employed a rack of ribs as percussion as he contemplated the death of Benito Mussolini’s mistress.
Born in Ohio as Noel Scott Engel, the musician earned a reputation starting in late ’50s Los Angeles as a musical go-getter who issued a string of trend-chasing singles as Scott Engel. On “Good for Nothing,” he delivered rockabilly. His instrumental song “Devil Surfer” tapped Dick Dale’s surf-happy sounds. On “Too Young,” the singer found his croon to mimic hit-makers such as Paul Anka, and with it he discovered his voice.
Recalled Walker to the Believer of his teen years, “After school or even cutting school, I would go to Hollywood Boulevard, where there were all these cinemas. You could see four movies for a quarter, or something like that. You could watch these films into the night.” Walker internalized these dramas.
Despite his early attempts at stardom, though, by the time the Beatles exploded, Walker was pounding the pavement with surf band the Routers, playing up and down the Sunset Strip during its 1960s heyday. After a gig at Pandora’s Box on Sunset, the erstwhile Engel met his future bandmate, John Walker. Along with first drummer Spider Webb, they formed the Walker Brothers — and “Scott Walker” was born.
The Walker Brothers relocated to England in the mid-1960s and were soon the subject of Beatlemania-size attention. Still, they issued a series of albums that earned little notice in the States. When the band disintegrated, Walker signed a solo deal and from 1967 to 1969 recorded four melodramatic, highly produced solo pop albums that failed to earn him much commercial success — but went on to inspire countless glam- and art-rock acts of the 1970s, including David Bowie and Roxy Music.
Both Walker and the Walker Brothers recorded records through the 1970s, but few stood out amid the era’s mess of soft rock.
Musically speaking, all hell broke loose on “Night Flight,” the Walker Brothers’ 1978 final album. Specifically, its first four songs, all written by Walker, pushed the group’s sound into a breathtakingly new direction. Driven by synthesizers and untethered from commercial aspirations, those four songs, which concluded with the electrifying song “The Electrician,” suggested a new experimental route for Walker, one that for the rest of his life he’d spend examining. It also confirmed that he was done collaborating with his bandmates.
Walker issued only one album in the 1980s, and pinning it down is akin to sipping mist. Called “Climate of Hunter,” its closest cognate is perhaps Joni Mitchell’s work of the era: humming bass, philosophical musings, maddening diversions, unresolved refrains. Some songs he didn’t even give a proper name. “Track Five” opens with Walker’s croon before spinning into a curious work that predicts Ariel Pink’s oddball ditties.
The artist didn’t issue another album until 1995, and it was a beast. Called “Tilt,” it’s as heavy as a Richard Serra sculpture and equally intimidating. Throbbing, creepy bottom-end tones guide the record’s nine songs, a characteristic that in interviews Walker described as his “binding sound,” one “that can be done with the vocals or the bass and drums.” Explained Walker to the Believer: “What it’s always sounded like to me, when it’s working well — it reminds me of the aural equivalent of [H. R.] Giger’s drawings of ‘Alien.’ ”
He added: “It’s not just glossy black and gray, but it’s splashes of white as well.”
After an 11-year break, Walker returned with an even darker, more menacing album in 2006 called “The Drift.” Lyrically devastating — Walker has said that he pens his words first, then seeks sounds that reinforce them — the artist sings of “six feet of foetus flung at sparrows in the sky” on “Jesse,” of “medieval savagery, calculated cruelty” on “Cossacks Are.” His 2012 album, “Bish Bosch,” which Walker described as the conclusion of a trilogy that began with “Tilt,” revels in lyrical one-liners while tackling oft-grim themes.
“Nothing clears a room like removing a brain,” he sings on “Corps de Blah,” a work that disconcertingly jumps between humor and disgust. That humor, Walker said, is often lost on listeners. His voice too could be off-putting, especially when he harnessed it in service of wild vocal runs.
“I think my voice has always been a kind of alien creature,” Walker said during an interview regarding the album, which would be his final solo album (he released “Soused,” his collaboration with the drone band Sunn O))), in 2014). “I kind of look at it as another person. I never know what I’m going to get when I wake up in the morning.”
In addition to albums, Walker also composed film scores. Most recently, he worked with director Brady Corbet on the 2016 film “The Childhood of a Leader” and Corbet’s 2018 film “Vox Lux.” By design, these mostly instrumental pieces placed Walker at the periphery. Walker was also the subject of an acclaimed documentary called “30th Century Man.”
Like waking up after a one-night-stand, Walker’s work could be emotionally and physically difficult. At times it sounds so structurally overwhelming, dramatically grim and strikingly contentious that experiencing it can be disconcerting. Walker was well aware that his music could be hard, he told the Believer, and offered advice for hearing “Bish Bosch” in the form of a comparison.
“When Kafka was reading his stories to friends, he’d become furious when they weren’t laughing,” Walker said. “What I’m trying to say is, let the album roll over you. Don’t worry about it.”
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