An enigmatic and truly singular talent with a very messy catalog. Scott began as a pop singer in The Walker Brothers – his subsequent solo work careens wildly from schlocky AOR covers to utterly uncompromising avant-garde originals. Though he’s frustratingly uneven, at his best he’s an influential musical visionary unafraid of pushing boundaries. And he made one absolute masterpiece.
Scott 4 *
‘Til The Band Comes In
Any Day Now
We Had It All
Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers) *
Climate of Hunter
The Drift *
Scott Walker confuses the heck out of me. He fills many of his records up with covers (and often quite lame ones at that), yet the highlights are almost always his stellar original compositions. His early records vacillate between powerful tormented pop with tons of artistic integrity, and Tom Jones-level orchestrated schlock. Who was his audience? Was he really THAT controlled by his record label that he had to spend nearly half his career on corny covers? One thing’s very clear about the man though: he has an insanely rich and gorgeous baritone that influenced countless future singers. It took me a while to understand the appeal of Mr. Walker – his crooning style isn’t really my favorite kind of singing, and sometimes his presentation can be incredibly boring. But when he’s ON…he’s positively amazing. In a way, he reminds me of someone like Harry Nilsson – amazing singer, obviously able to showcase some great taste, their best stuff is as good as ANYONE elses…but lots of dead time spent on dull covers and too-commercial moves. The first two Scott records can be summed up this way: everything that wasn’t composed by Scott (under his “real” name Noel Engel) or Jacques Brel is filler. Scott is an awesome interpreter of Brel’s songs, and those songs are just great no matter who is singing ’em! This album opens with Brel’s “Mathilde,” done up in a ridiculously bombastic orchestral arrangement. It’s overblown and bizarre – and with his melodramatic croon, you really get the sense Scott wanted to be a hipper Sinatra! Next comes BY FAR the best song on the album, and one of the all-time great Scott originals…”Montague Terrace (In Blue).” This is a phenomenal recording – when those drums come in for the chorus, it’s truly stunning. The vocals and the melody are both haunting and gorgeous. The next three songs are non-Brel covers – “Angelica” is almost insufferably corny, “The Lady Came from Baltimore” is a nice but slight country tune, and “When Joanna Loved Me” is a dull croon-fest heartbreak song. Then we get another killer Brel cover – ‘My Death” – scary, haunting, and beautiful. SIDE B is a bit lacking. Scott’s “Such A Small Love” possesses the album’s most avant-pointing arrangement – it’s a bit boring but also ambitious and unique. There’s a seductive dark beauty in the track and that vibe would really blossom on the later albums. But the rest of the songs don’t do a whole lot for me – and besides “Montague Terrace” there aren’t any serious classics on here.
SCOTT 2 (1968)
Way better and more consistent, though the album peters off sadly at the end. For the most part, though, it’s one of the best early Scott records. The style is almost identical to the debut, though there are some “weirder” moments. “Jackie” opens the record and it’s another huge, orchestrated, and excellent Brel cover. The other Brels on this record are both winners as well – “Next” would later be covered by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, much more to my liking (!), but Scott kills it too. And “The Girls And The Dogs” is hilarious and perfectly performed. The best part of this album are the Scott songs – “The Amorous Humprey Plugg” is an oddly structured but awesome narrative song, and “Plastic Palace People” is potentially the best Scott song EVER. It’s certainly his most “rock” sounding yet, and his most experimental and lengthy. It’s got some psychedelic production on the vocals, and an almost suite-like structure. A great song. The rest of the album is less exciting, and there are three forgettable tracks at the end (one of which is a Scott song – “The Bridge” – and it’s the only of his from these first two albums that does absolutely nothing for me). But it’s a step up – and a move toward the more idiosyncratic waters of the next run of records.
SCOTT 3 (1969)
Hmm. I was definitely expecting to like Scott’s first fully “artistic” record a lot more than I do. It’s certainly a fine and interesting record, but it’s also the most somber of his classic period, and probably also the most generally boring. It’s also easily the strongest lyrically, though when almost every track shares the same sad-romantic-orchestral atmosphere, things start to seriously run together. Many of these tracks are about doomed love affairs or sad, neglected outcasts – but the best of ’em comes right at the beginning – the gorgeous and haunting “It’s Raining Today.” The melody isn’t particularly memorable, but the sentiment and lyrics just drip with pathos, and the arrangement employs a nearly atonal string part during the verses that provide a subtle menacing counterpoint to the lyric…it’s a trick that would take center stage in Scott’s later style. Most of the entire rest of Side A runs together for me – atmospheric and pretty for sure, and Scott’s voice is truly a powerful instrument. But something feels missing (and it’s probably the lack of variety). We DO luckily get the engaging bombast of “We Came Through,” the sole truly upbeat track of all the Scott originals. The sound here is still mostly orchestrated 60s pop with big arrangements, but things are pushing into a more folk-territory and Scott sounds a lot more comfortable, and a lot more subdued. Side B is a step up – it opens with a total anomaly in Scott’s career up to this point, which would paradoxically go on to become one his most famous songs! Probably because it’s simply one of his GREATEST songs, fame or no fame – the short folk anthem “30th Century Man.” Scott sings is a totally different sort of un-Sinatra rock/folk/country Van Zandt-y voice on the track, and it’s just Scott and a guitar…which probably helps it serve as a gateway drug to the man. It’s a great vocal, a catchy hook – a classic track. “Two Weeks Since You’ve Gone” is probably the third best original on here – it’s got the exact same atmosphere as the A-side songs, but the changes are a bit more ambitious and I just like the melody more! OK…then comes the climax – three AMAZING Brel covers. This is the best part of the album for me for sure – the song choices rule, Scott sounds incredible, the arrangements are unique and varied and the tracks erase the boring taste in my mouth from the previous run of tunes. I’m pretty sure I should be crediting this to Mr. Brel, but whoever came up with the yin and yang arrangement idea of “If You Go Away” deserves a medal. Anyway, this is an essential part of Scott’s legacy, but I just don’t think it’s all that great a record, and absolutely not the best place to start with Scott. The next album is just too much of a no-brainer on all those fronts.
SCOTT 4 (1969)
This is a little over half and hour long, solely made up of Scott originals, and it’s a total classic. Every problem I’ve had with Scott in the past is suddenly solved – there’s still drama and orchestrations and he hasn’t significantly changed much about his vocal style…but there’s also variety, actual grooviness and full-band tracks, an incredible flow, total integrity throughout, gorgeous melodies, haunting arrangements, and easily the best set of Walker tunes to grace a record. Basically every track on here is an absolute beauty – they range in tone and style, and Scott seems in complete control over every note. Whereas with the previous Walker albums you have to make some apologies for the 60s and the commercial demands of the label and sort through the chaff to get to the gems, this album just sounds from the get-go like a classic 60s record that can be played alongside any of the greats. SIDE A is the more depressed of the two, but it contains some jaw-droppingly beautiful songs like “Boy Child” and “Angels of Ashes.” But the two best early cuts are the Spaghetti Western-tinged Ingmar Bergman quoting story-song “The Seventh Seal” and the endearing catchy pop anthem “The World’s Strongest Man.” The only song on the entire record that ALMOST fails is the under-2 minute “On Your Own Again” – quite pretty but a bit (I assume intentionally) underdeveloped. But damn, it’s not even 2 minutes long, so I can surely brush it aside without considering it a genuine flaw! SIDE B is where I really found myself scratching my head in happy surprise – where did this brilliant album artist come from all of a sudden!? Every song is arranged with a rock ensemble, and there’s a pronounced singer-songwriter country-folk vibe. But song for song it rules – “Hero Of The War” and “Get Behind Me” are big and powerful, “Duchess” and “Rhymes of Goodbye” are beautiful and delicate (and “Duchess” has an achingly beautiful melody and vocal performance). The muscular “The Old Man’s Back Again” is possibly my all-time favorite Walker song. The Morricone voices on that one are PERFECT. I love this album – Scott would never better it – and it’s a well-known shame that due to it’s unfair commercial failure he’d move onto schlockier commercial pastures for most of the 70s. But this is a must-have for any lover of great pop music.
TIL THE BAND COMES IN (1970)
Whereas Scott’s previous record was tight, short, and brilliant, this follow-up is a complete sprawling mess! That’s not to say it lacks strong material – about a third of this is top-shelf Scott, and the rest never dips below the worst of the first two records. But the album is all over the place stylistically, and there are also 5 covers tacked onto the ending – a ridiculous compromise Scott was forced to make with his record company (this record was a huge bomb anyway, and Scott lost tons of artistic credibility). This was the crashing disappointment that led Scott into a wilderness period of schmaltzy cover albums – and even led Pulp, years later on an album Scott himself was producing (!), to reference the disappointing “covers” Side B of this platter. Interestingly enough, the FIRST song on Side B is by far my favorite, and one of the best Scott songs ever – the title track! The changes in the chorus are incredible, and the bombast works perfectly due to the title and theme of the lyric. Other highlights include the propulsive “Little Things” and the anthemic “Thanks For Chicago Mr. James.” “Jean The Machine” is a fun novelty tune, with some great back-up vocals (Bowie must have heard that one!). There are some fun but forgettable genre excursions (the lounge-jazz of “Time Operator,” another little folk toss-off called “Cowbells Shakin'” that’s nowhere near as good as “30th Century Man” but still cute enough). I get the sense that Scott’s originals are part of some greater conceptual work about War, but the album is so scattered it’s impossible to think of it as a concept piece. THEN we have the 5 covers – and three out of five are very enjoyable due to great production, vocals, and playing (“Stormy,” “Reuben James,” and “It’s Over”). The other two drown in schmaltz, and I assume that’s the direction Scott would take on the next four “lost” records that everyone seems to ignore when talking about this great experimental pop icon. This album sounds more like an outtakes record than anything else – and while there are some major highlights, it’s ultimately just a big letdown after Scott 4.
THE NEXT FOUR SCOTT ALBUMS ARE PART OF HIS “WILDERNESS YEARS.” THEY’RE ALL COVERS ALBUMS, AND SCOTT ALL BUT DISOWNS THEM. IN THE “30TH CENTURY MAN” DOCUMENTARY, HE EXPLAINS THEIR EXISTENCE AS STEMMING FROM COMPROMISES WITH THE LABEL AFTER SCOTT 4’S COMMERCIAL FAILURE…AND HIS OWN SUBSTANCE ABUSE. THE QUESTION IS: DO THEY HAVE ANY MERIT OR SHOULD WE JUST FORGET THEY EXIST WHEN ASSESSING SCOTT’S WORK? READ ON….
THE MOVIEGOER (1972)
Yep. This is exactly what everyone says it is. A bunch of covers of songs from movies, done up in lounge-singer or soft-country or orchestral pop styles. Scott’s croon is as lovely as ever, but there isn’t one remotely creative idea on here. It’s boring, dull, and compromised – like taking all the worst and lamest elements of the early Scott records and upping the cheese factor and collecting them under one roof, without the weirder/experimental side to counteract the bad vibes. And the song selection is lame too – do we really want to hear Scott Walker singing the Godfather theme? Totally professional and polished, and totally dorky and useless.
ANY DAY NOW (1973)
Far more enjoyable than “The Moviegoer,” this is still a completely disposable and slight group of pop song covers from a seemingly very disinterested Scott. I don’t really understand what happened to the man in the mid-70s – what was he thinking as he recorded and promoted these obviously sub-par covers albums? Did he have a burning desire to create at this point, or was he just feeling depressed or washed up or maybe a drug casualty? Or maybe just young and attractive and fucking lots of hot girls who loved his voice? Because that’s certainly the one constant on all these records – that voice never grows one notch less lovely. Anyway, where “The Moviegoer” was all schmaltzy orchestrated crap, this record at least uses some 70s funk and country instrumentation, with uber-professional bands, and the covers include works by some of the great songwriters from this era (Randy Newman, Bill Withers, Jimmy Webb, Caetano Veloso). So this is still commercial and utterly compromised and very dated, and not really worth hearing unless you’re a giant Scott fan…but at least there are some good SONGS on here! We get an unnecessary “Ain’t No Sunshine” cover, an unnecessary “Cowboy” cover, a fun Veloso cover, a lot of corniness, and when it’s over, you feel like you’ve just experienced nothing. “We Could Be Flying” has some interesting 70s band interplay, and I happen to love this kind of instrumentation – it’s very organic and warm. It’s a totally commercial schlock-pop production from the early 70s – take it or leave it. I prefer to leave it, but you could be listening to worse music (at least the band can truly play and the singer truly sing).
Basically a continuation of the previous record – light 70s pop production adorns some very commercial covers by some of the same writers (Jimmy Webb, Randy and Del Newman, Withers). Scott’s singing is a bit more varied on here, and there’s a stronger “light-country” bent. But this is similarly useless and forgettable, and sometimes corny. Nobody wants to hear Scott sounding like this – he’s supposed to be an oddball, a cult hero, an original. This is just a generic pop singer covers album. It IS very well-produced and played, and Scott’s voice continues to be incredible. Plus, there is one track that I absolutely love – the concluding “I’ll Be Home” is one of those sentimental Randy Newman songs that seem to be the only Randy tunes I can handle other people covering (otherwise, I just simply need that toad-like voice selling the hilarious and incredible songs). But Scott sings “Home” with a unique and higher head-voice (very different for him), and the rendition is just beautiful – piano and light unobtrusive orchestration and Scott and a Randy Newman song – nothing crass about that! My favorite version of that song. Overall, while this is very easy to listen to (it IS easy-listening music!), it’s a fans only sorta release.
WE HAD IT ALL (1974)
This is easily the most enjoyable of the wilderness years records – it’s almost entirely country-based, and half the record is made up of covers from Waylon Jennings’ album “Honky Tonk Heroes.” While I find that decision odd (the Jennings record had only been released a year ago), it does help give this album a consistency and focus that was lacking on the others. PLUS, it’s only 35 minutes long! Scott works quite well as a deep-voiced country dude – the guy has such great control over his vocals that he could really sing anything, I imagine. But this material fits him – and the Billy Joe Shaver songs from the Jennings album never get maudlin on us. The band sounds great, the vibe is there (if a lot lighter and poppier than a “real” country record), and Scott actually seems like he has a bit of enthusiasm for this project. That being said, this is still not very important in the context of Scott’s other albums, and it’s not even as good as a freckle on Scott 4’s ass. But out of the 4 “forgotten” Walker records, this is definitely the one to hear.
NITE FLIGHTS (THE WALKER BROTHERS) (1978)
SCOTT’S 4 SONGS: A THE ALBUM AS A WHOLE: B
This is one of the weirdest and best Walker projects! After his run of commercial cheesy covers records, Walker reunited with his 60s band The Walker Brothers for a couple more cheesy covers records (apparently – I haven’t heard them). But THEN, for their final record, the three band-mates put out this dark decadent record, which sounds nothing like anything they’d done before (and Scott would never sound like this again). There’s a total 70s avant-disco atmosphere on here – Scott’s songs sound almost exactly like a darker Roxy Music or Low-era Bowie. He’s not crooning at all on here – this is definitely the closest he ever got to actual rock music. The album is split up so that each band member takes over on songwriting and vocal duties for their portion of the record. It’s essentially three solo records. And infamously, Scott’s songs are a billion times better than his “brothers'” – so much so that people generally just disregard the album altogether after track 4. I think the other tracks aren’t quite so dire, however, but more on that in a minute. The heart of this record lays in the first 4 tunes – the Scott tracks – which if separated into their own EP would easily be one of the key Walker releases, maybe only slightly weaker than Scott 4. Each song rules, and the production is menacing and creative and experimental, with crazy tones and atmospherics. The tunes are also quite melodic and accessible – something that would go away on later Scott releases. So we get the dance-y “Shut Out,” the experimental “Fat Mama Kick” with an abnormally processed Walker vocal and incredible guitar (bass?) riff/tone….there’s also the amazing and haunting title track. The most famous song is the 6 minute epic “The Electrician,” which alternates between sparse and scary sounding verses and orchestrated beautifully melodic middle sections. It’s an incredible track. NOW – once Scott’s songs are finished, the album takes a big nose-dive into more normal song-writing territory. I’m not sure why the other guys in the band would even consider taking over on vocals with a voice like Scott’s in your band. They’re both totally weak and uninteresting singers, which is a shame. Some of the later songs are more dated, and lyrically goofy – they just aren’t all that great as songs. BUT they’re saved by similarly awesome production, great drum sounds, and the same general atmosphere that makes the Scott songs so exciting. I definitely don’t mind listening to the rest of the album – but I can’t deny that there’s a let down in moving from Scott’s twisted tracks to a bunch of bluesier and straight-forward 70s rock tracks. Oh well – a really awesome release nonetheless – I sure wish there was more Walker material of this ilk!
CLIMATE OF HUNTER (1984)
This is probably the weirdest Scott release of them all! Scott’s next two albums were expansive, experimental, avant-pop albums – certainly progressive and weird – but at least they ANNOUNCE themselves as such. This album exists in some bizarre middle-ground and it’s practically indefinable. It was Scott’s only 80s album, and the only material he released for a nearly 20 year period. It’s 31 minutes, with most of it’s tracks untitled. It’s full of 80s production elements like Fretless bass and boomy gated drums. It’s meandering and largely unconcerned with pop hooks. Scott’s voice has aged a bit, and he’s on the way to the strange moaning style of the next two records, but he still sort of sounds like he wants to sing pop music. The atmosphere on here is akin to a late-period Roxy Music album, but there’s not much being given to the listener here in a pop sense. In the “30th Century Man” documentary, Scott’s engineer mentions that he didn’t even know what the melodies were while recording the backing tracks for these “songs.” That’s not hard to believe from listening to the finished product. And there AREN’T very many melodies anyway! But where on next two albums, the lack of melody and classicist structures would be balanced out by haunting nightmarish sound-scapes and poetic imagery…this album just feels odd and slight. But there are some good tracks. The fan favorite is “Sleepwalkers Woman,” which sounds like the most fully conceived composition and arrangement here. It’s the most melodic and orchestrated tune, and Scott pours his soul into the vocal performance. There’s the “single,” labeled only Track 3, which is incredibly Roxy-esque with it’s rocking 80s drums and reverb-y atmosphere. But it also employs some dissonant chords, and Scott sounds more perturbed than romantic. Most of the other songs run together for me, and I can’t say I ever really want to hear this again (especially when considering how much better are the subsequent avant-Scott albums).
Having heard the follow-up to this album, I’m left totally underwhelmed by what I’ve heard described as “the scariest album ever made.” In retrospect, “Climate” and “Tilt” both feel like warm-ups to “The Drift,” which could itself be a warm-up to something even MORE insane (I can’t imagine what that would be!). This is a lot prettier and poppier than it’s reputation would have you believe, though it’s certainly the most far-out album Scott had attempted at this point, and it’s full of dissonance and bizarre imagery. But Scott is still singing intelligible melodies at this point, and I don’t even hear him going for the nightmare-scapes of “The Drift” for much of this record. The sounds are expressionistic, and the language cryptic, but the mood is more like a super-artsy Peter Gabriel than anything else. The most immediately striking track is “The Cockfighter,” with it’s loud industrial passages and Scott’s insane vocal stylings (“It’s a Beautiful Ni—HEIGHT! YEAH”). That song initiates the harsh dynamics that Walker would carry out to the extreme on the follow-up. The opener “Farmer In The City” is a haunting and operatic orchestrated song with a cryptic “Do I Hear 21…21…21” refrain. A few of the tracks use the fretless bass sound from “Climate,” which dates this album a bit (“Tilt,” and “Face On Breast” – incidentally the two most accessible tracks on here). This record is full of exciting ideas and pushes Walker in totally new directions, but it retains the coldness of the previous record – the tracks feel more like exercises than truly inspired works of passion.
THE DRIFT (2006)
A long and dense record that alternates between terrifying sound-scapes and ethereal beauty. This is Scott’s least friendly album, and he FINALLY seems to have entirely disregarded the old 60s pop star. There are few melodies on here, and Scott doesn’t alter his weird affected tone much throughout the record (so there’s no real “singing” – more like recited poetry with occasional melodies poking through). But it’s also his most visionary record, and his ambitious, and even though I don’t imagine I’ll be listening to it very much in the future…as a movie for the ears it’s simply stunning. Put it this way: if Scott 4 is Walker’s “The Seventh Seal,” then this album is his is “Cries and Whispers.” This is a dark and mesmerizing work, though at first it sounded like a bunch of random bologna to my ears. It takes a while for these “pieces” to grow on you – and they really are more like sonic art pieces than songs proper. But there isn’t one moment on here that lets down the focus and the intensity, and some of these tracks are among the best things Scott ever did. The absolute masterpiece here is the second track, “Clara,” which is based upon Mussolini’s lover and the couple’s public execution. It’s a beautiful and massive song, and the only one that allows a genuine melody (“this is not…a corn-husk doll”) to alternate with it’s dissonant and more frightening passages. It’s a total stunner. There are two awesome tracks with off-kilter post-punky guitar riffs (“Cossacks Are” and “Hand Me Up”) – they’re probably the heaviest tracks Scott ever recorded. This album is full of tension and shock and release – witness the infamous Daffy Duck voice at the end of “The Escape!” That voice and the entrance of the dying strings on “Cue” are perhaps the scariest moments I’ve EVER heard on an album! And they’re not achieved with evil heavy metal chords or screaming voices – just strings and a cartoon voice! After some lesser experiments, Scott has really honed his ability to craft haunting atmospheres. This is hardly a pop album in the traditional sense, but it isn’t some “woe is me” sort of depressing record either. It’s an attempt at conveying nightmarish moods via sound and words, and once you wrap your head around it, it’s a pretty damn fun record! It’s just nuts! It’s more akin to a classic suspense movie than anything else. It’s also totally unique and well worth anyone’s time, if they want to hear music pushed to the outer limits.