Ahead of the reissue of his 1984 album, Climate of Hunter, and a brand new studio set due later this year on 4AD (entitled The Drift), David Davies profiles one of rock’s most singular talents – Scott Walker.
Beginning his career as a session bassist in California during the early ‘60s, Scott Walker – born Noel Scott Engel – really only began to make a mark when he joined forces with Gary Leeds and John Maus as The Walker Brothers. Moving to London in 1965, the trio recorded a series of classic singles (‘My Ship Is Coming In’, ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’) that raised the bar for symphonic pop. But it is Scott’s extraordinary musical development after 1967, the year in which the group split for the first time, that concerns us here.
Mixing cover versions – frequently by Scott’s hero, Jacques Brel – with an increasing number of original songs, Scott vols 1-3 established Walker as a confident solo artist and arguably the most gifted male vocalist of his generation. ‘Montague Terrace (In Blue)’, ‘Joanna’ and ‘30th Century Man’ – the last-named recently heard in Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic – are just three examples of a vivid, theatrical body of work.
This period culminated in the release of 1969’s Scott 4. At just over half-an-hour in length, it is a brief but remarkable suite of songs encompassing everything from an evocation of an Ingmar Bergmann classic (‘The Seventh Seal’) to oblique life-cycle reveries (‘Boy Child’). Bearing an inscription derived from the work of French novelist Albert Camus, Scott 4 remains a startling listen 37 years on and should be a part of any half-decent record collection.
Unforgivably, the album sank without trace upon original release. Possibly stung by this rejection, Walker began to lose focus, drifting through a series of anonymous, covers-dominated albums and eventually falling back into The Walker Brothers during the mid ‘70s. Splendid single ‘No Regrets’ aside, the initial fruits of their reunion were unspectacular. All that changed with Nite Flights (1978), an album featuring four ambitious Walker compositions – those by his bandmates aren’t bad, either – that mapped out the course he would take over the next two decades. Post-rock before the term had even been invented, and hinting at all kinds of unspoken personal angst, ‘The Electrician’ and the title track simultaneously confirmed Walker’s artistic rebirth and heralded the end of the band for a second and final time.
It’s easy to read the story thereafter as one of a continuing journey into darkness. A six-year silence preceded the release of Climate of Hunter, a short and opaque album on which half of the songs didn’t even have proper titles (‘Track 3’, ‘Track 5’, etc). A wintry closing cover of the old standard ‘Blanket Roll Blues’ even had the sense of a final sign-off from music. And bar a standalone single (‘Man From Reno’) in the early ‘90s, it might well have been, with Walker opting to return to art college and generally assuming a JD Salinger-like public profile for over a decade.
When he finally reappeared, in 1995, it was with an album that may well prove to be his lasting masterpiece. Tilt, co-produced with long-term collaborator Peter Walsh, could not have been more at odds with that year’s Britpop euphoria. Performed in the main by a small team of superb players – among them guitarist David Rhodes and drummer Ian Thomas – Tilt is an album of uneasy soundscapes and moments of real drama (most memorably, the blaring church organ that threatens to submerge ‘Manhattan’). Lyrically, it is Walker at his most oblique, although many of the songs appear to mourn horrific events, including genocide; ‘The Cockfighter’, for example, was partially based upon extracts from the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Featuring some astounding vocals by Scott, Tilt is a haunting album of real substance and so resolutely anti-mainstream that it would probably cause Simon Cowell’s brains to dribble out of his ears should he ever encounter it – surely another reason that it be treasured.
Since then, Walker has occupied his time composing a surprisingly traditional score for Leos Carax’s Pola X and producing Pulp (2001’s underrated We Love Life). Two frankly hair-raising recent songs written for German-born diva Ute Lemper (collected on Scott’s excellent, career-spanning 2003 box set, Five Easy Pieces) may offer some clues as to the sound of his forthcoming 4AD debut – due later this year and rumoured to feature former Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser – but really, it’s anybody’s guess. It is safe to assume, however, that it will be bold, unexpected and challenging – qualities that the rock world is unlikely to suffocate from any time soon.
Climate Of Hunter by Scott Walker is out now on EMI records The Drift is due out in May on 4AD records.