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Remembering Scott Walker’s Greatest Moments of Musical Storytelling

Repeatedly, in interviews during his later career, Scott Walker said that the thrust of his lyrics defined his approach to writing music. “The lyric dictates everything on this album,” he said in a 1995 interview about Tilt. “If it tells me to change the time or whatever, I will obey the lyric, ‘cause that’s where it came from.” Ironically, however, Walker claimed that his “creative imagination” with songwriting was unlocked by an artist whose lyrics he could understand only marginally.

The visionary singer-songwriter and composer, who died at age 76 this week, described the epiphany he experienced circa 1967 in the most romantic possible terms, rendering an archetypal image: of an ex-pat artist, coming of age in a music industry he felt increasingly out of touch with. The Walker Brothers, the faux-British-Invasion pop unit in which the American-born Walker first made his name, had just broken up, and he remembered living briefly with a “German girl…who had a habit of drinking a lot of Pernot.” Late into the night, she played records by Jacques Brel, a modern master of the French chanson. The music made an indelible impression on Walker.

Brel’s style was effusive, defined by the rhythms of speech. Many of his songs described scenes resembling the one in which Walker was living when he heard them. Scott, Walker’s lavishly orchestrated 1967 solo debut, featured several Brel songs in English translation. The record contains only three original compositions (and several non-Brel covers), but Walker’s early attempts at symbolist lyrics and formally experimental songwriting fit in remarkably well with the work of far more experienced songwriters. Throughout his next two albums, Walker would continue to view Brel as something of an extension of himself, investing the French singer’s compositions with a personalized conversationality, at turns vituperative (“Jackie,” “Next”) and wistful (“If You Go Away,” “Amsterdam”). By the time of Walker’s early masterpiece Scott 3, some of his best compositions—songs like “Copenhagen” and “The Girls From the Streets”—sounded nearly indistinguishable from the Brel recastings that still surrounded them.

Brel taught Walker that clarity of speech and lyric were everything—a lesson that set the template for the next 50 years of his iconoclastic career, which was defined by seismic shifts in approach, sometimes workshopped over the course of full decades spent out of the public eye. By the end, Walker’s songs were uncompromising mini-operas that abandoned all sense of traditional syntax, so full of references to history and film that one sometimes felt like the record sleeve should include a glossary. Despite the music’s complexity, he arranged it to accommodate maximum vocal comprehensibility. When discussing his arrangements on what may stand as both his most challenging and visionary work, 2006’s The Drift, Walker described his intention very simply: “Very low end, very high end, with the voice in the middle right where it should be. It stops people latching onto any kind of artifice.”

The way in which Scott Walker’s librettos work in tandem with their accompaniment is key to the beauty and genius of many of his greatest music achievements. Through all his drastic stylistic conversions, he was a master of word painting, his music interacting with his text in detailed and profound ways. It remains difficult to wrap your head around how the man who started by swaying his hips and singing Burt Bacharach tunes as a member of the Walker Brothers ended up recording 2012’s “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” an atonal, foul-mouthed 22-minute epic about Attilla the Hun’s dwarf court jester. There is plenty of connective tissue to suggest how Walker got there, however, and certainly a common ethos, driven by an urge to make a meaningful connection with listeners, no matter how dissonant or intense the material. “The idea is to make the text resonate,” Walker said in 1995. “It’s to get this resonating factor going. I don’t cut up, I’m not that kind of writer. I can just tell you that it’s not easy. I have to work at it, and please, someone else work at it when they’re listening.”

In the prolific final decade of its life, Walker was continuing to find unexpected new narratives, and musical methodologies to accompany them. Precious few artists have managed to create some of their greatest work in their 70s, and it’s entirely possible that Walker still had another masterpiece in him when he died. For now, though, we can look back and appreciate how he came to be a peerless figure in late-20th-century music: through his evolving sense of musical narrative. Though Walker’s interpretations of music by Brel and others are an essential piece of his catalog, the following list will focus exclusively on his original compositions.

“The Girls from the Street” (1968)

Before he began eschewing verse-chorus song structures in the late ‘70s, Walker broke from the trends of pop music of the time by inhabiting characters, often creating them with grotesque vocal shifts from one to the next. In Its queasy narrative turns and vocal delivery, Scott 2’s “The Girls From the Streets” finds resonances with some of the drunken farces on Walker’s last non-soundtrack solo album, 2012’s Bish Bosch. In this early experiment with Brel-esque songwriting, Walker sneers, falls under pitch, and exhales in dramatic gusts, while pneumatic horn and string oompahs evoke the seamy imagery of the verses. The narrator finds escape in hedonism, as lore would have us believe Walker did himself at the time, and the chords brighten up as the fun begins. A carousel begins to turn (see also “Copenhagen”), backed by circus-like bells and accordion. The tempo speeds up precariously as the merry-go-round spins, and the eponymous girls strike up a wordless chorus behind Walker, completing the delusion.

“It’s Raining Today” (1969)

In a sense, the avant-garde iconoclast version of Scott Walker that surfaced in the late 1970s began with the opening tone cluster in this song, the indelible first track of Scott 3. A string orchestra provides a sonic storm cloud that hangs over the verses, evoking the “moments that descend on [his] windowpane.” In the sunnier and richly orchestral bridge, there is a brief respite. Walker’s narrator briefly remembers a past connection with another person, but then lets the moment disappear into the congested gloom.

“The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” (1969)

Inspired by the invasion of invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 under the Warsaw Pact, this Scott 4 highlight is an early example of Walker writing specifically about a historical event, and of his interest in stories of dictatorship and war, which would last for the rest of his career. The ominous “old man” (Stalin’s ghost, perhaps?) looms in the chorus thanks to swells from a subterranean male vocal ensemble. In the second verse, string lines treat the war’s victims tenderly; later, they accompany a shell-shocked soldier’s story (“devoured by his pain/bewildered by the faces who pass him by”) with erratic bursts. When the soldier recalls the death of his mother, the weight of the memory almost slows the song to a halt.

“Time Operator” (1970)

Walker described 1970’s ‘Til the Band Comes In, the first LP in a series of contractual obligation albums from the early part of the decade, as the result of his label telling him, “We’re getting off you as a writer.” The second side of the album was all covers, including a fairly convincing version of Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” But the first half was all Scott, but more reined in than he had been previously, mostly operating along the more adult-contemporary side of the Scott series’ spectrum. A couple of tracks in the middle of the album, however, operate in a different stylistic space, and resemble little else in his catalogue. “Time Operator” is the record’s masterpiece, bookended by the canned voice of a phone operator—the first use of outright noise in a Walker recording. A lyrical orchestral accompaniment emerges, but shortly afterward, a bongo-driven jazz combo enters to back up the syrupy, crooned chorus. (“Time Operator/Take the time to take the time/To come over here.”) Walker sings in an exaggerated accent, delivering a monologue by a lower-class man who is struggling to pay his bills and pining after the telephone operator. The whimsical arrangement supports every dramatic turn in his story.

“The Electrician” (1978)

“The Electrician” is arguably Walker’s first piece written in an essentially classical form, through-composed without repeating sections. The hovering string cluster of “It’s Raining Today” fades in uglier and denser, offset by bass thwacks and metallic shrieks somewhere off in the distance. The middle section has a sunnier affect, but Walker’s descending entreaties of “kill me” and “thrill me” get tripped up on strange modal notes. There’s a sickly effect to the whole thing—a love song of sorts, but about trained CIA torturers in Chile during the Pinochet regime. Walker’s mature style of lyric writing, fragmented and obscure, is here in full force: “He’s drilling through the spiritus sanctus tonight/Through the dark hip falls /Screaming ‘Oh you mambos.’”

“Track Five” (1984)

Walker’s 1984 comeback album Climate of Hunter was a half-hour of uncharacterizable music, positioned somewhere between classical art song and the vanguard edge of new wave. Some sections are open expanses of ambient sound; others feature Mark Knopfler guitar solos. “Track Five” begins in the ether, with quiet guitar harmonics, indeterminate drones (“A low volume force feed/lower than pity”), and Walker’s voice rising out tentatively. The band comes in boisterously, almost parodically, with a primitive four-on-the-floor backbeat. The chords shift in and out of key, constantly pulling the rug out from under the listener. Clouded in slapback, Walker sings of “pain sonics eternities,” with sentence constructions and phrasing operating at Jabberwocky levels of inscrutability. In the coda, the beat and a tenuous major chord repeat ad infinitum, evoking the song’s final image: “afterburning.”

“Bouncer See Bouncer” (1995)

When discussing his later work, Walker once said: “We don’t know what the name of the chords are, but you just grope around until you find the appropriate sounds for that. You have to pick players that are…an extension of your psychological sound.” On 1995’s Tilt, for the first time, long sections of songs passed with no chords or instrumental pitches to speak of. ‘Bouncer See Bouncer,’ one of the album’s most minimal pieces, is mostly a duet for Walker’s mournful vocal and rattling percussion, blended with bird and insect noise (“the halo of locusts”). The “band” doesn’t play a chord until the breathtaking escape of the brief middle section, bolstered by a massive church organ: “I love this season without its cleft/left hook to the right foot, right cross to the left.” The music enters like a thin ray of sun through prison bars, a stray hopeful thought by a man who is about to be executed.

“Jesse” (2006)

The Drift’s “Jesse” is the kind of song that earned Walker’s work in the 2000s a reputation as impenetrable. It is also one of Walker’s most enduring paranoid micro-dramas. Jesse seems to be written from the perspective of Elvis, telling his stillborn brother about a nightmare he had that presaged 9/11. Each section of text has its own timbral environment: tectonic blocks of strings and industrial percussion, frenetic upright bass and cello glyphs, distant and atonal strums on a baritone guitar, and finally silence. “I’m the only one left alive,” Walker cries out repeatedly, a capella, to end the track. Whereas Tilt had the occasional triumphant refrains and hummable melodies, The Drift had only space and texture, with disturbing, often outright frightening narration to organize it. It stands as Walker’s most formidable release; one could spend a lifetime finding new ways to trace patterns in it.

“SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” (2012)

The use of “Bosch” in the title of Bish Bosch is no accident: Zercon, a 5th-century dwarf who was a court jester to Atilla and various Byzantine leaders, is the character in Walker’s pastiche that takes up the most space. Resembling a craven and grotesque figure in some corner of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, he pontificates, raves, screames, and sobs for a full 22 minutes, while the accompaniment veers between the softest and loudest moments (with dashes of industrial metal) heard on any Scott Walker song. “Zercon” is a microcosm of Walker’s late period styles, with a few major perverse twists. Zercon views Atilla’s wooden palace, now his prison, as a big toilet, and Walker imagines “toilet things on the wall with roman numeral phone numbers.” The closest thing the song has to a chorus: “III V IX IX I,” “II IX V I IV IX I,” and so on. Its greatest one-liner: “If shit were music, you’d be a brass band.”

The narration is sucked deep into Walker’s anachronistic and twisted imagination, as Zercon tries “different podiums…to try to get to a place where there’s no bottom or top.” Onomatopoeia and musical images run through “Zercon,” from “fugues on Jove’s Spam castanets” to “drop-kicked coloratura fouling my ears.” It’s safe to say that no song like “Zercon” existed before it, or will after.

Tags: Scott Walker