Orchestral pop is an abused art form. Grand and epic orchestrations backing elegant melodies isn’t as easy to sell as, say, Katy Perry’s breasts. Which is why Scott Walker is neglected in his home and native U.S.A., but revered as a songwriting hero in the U.K., where he relocated with his band the Walker Brothers in the sixties. His solo career is a lesson in brilliance and bad luck.
Blessed with a gorgeously emotive baritone and a man unafraid of risk ( he was among the first musicians to play electric bass as a studio musician in the fifties), his first five solo records are the stuff of legend. Of the five, it was Scott 4 that showcased his songwriting best. There are no Jacques Brel covers on this album ( though all Brel and Walker fans have nothing but praise for Walker’s Brel covers).
The man is responsible for one of my all time favourite songs- the richly expressive “The Old Man’s Back Again”, subtitled “Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime”. A warning from the left about the encroaching Soviet style of governance written in the wake of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet reaction, the song has a rich Wall of Sound texture and an elegant and beautifully crafted bass line.
There is the ambitious, flamenco tinged “The Seventh Seal”, which is nothing more than a summary of the Ingmar Bergman movie, but less painful to watch ( Wild Strawberries is a better Bergman film, it’s less nap inducing). Again, sweeping orchestral touches, stunning bass lines, epic choral back grounds, and that incredible voice create a perfect sound.
The album is so beautifully arranged, a song like “Boy Child” that could have been maudlin and mopey turn out to be haunting and wistful, and the sparse “On Your Own Again” could have been self-indulgent instead of a brief moment of reflection and memory. Even my least favourite track on the record, the 50s era sounding “Angels of Ashes”, is too lovely for words.
I just feel an overwhelming sadness when I listen to Walker now, as his career veered wildly post 1969, when Scott 4 was released. The album had flopped, and the man, notoriously uneasy with fame and adulation, would record mostly covers in the 70s before nearly disappearing. He did put out three Walker Brothers albums in the mid to late 70s, but they were nowhere near as good as this album.
My other favourite tracks of this record, the country tinged anti-war song “Hero of the War”, the self-reflective “The World’s Strongest Man”, the revivalist sounding “Get Behind Me”, and the lilting “Duchess”, a song so perfect Neko Case covers it– they all complete one of the best albums I have ever heard in my life. Walker is a huge influence on some of my favourite artists- the Divine Comedy are clear successors, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp is an outspoken fan and convinced Walker to produce their 2001 album, and Radiohead has emulated Walker’s ability to create orchestral landscapes with atmospheric noise and stunning rock and roll touches. Even an artist like Nick Cave is inspired by Walker- in fact, Nick Cave’s solo career is what Walker’s could have been if Walker had been a sick, twisted freak of a human being instead of a gentle soul. There is even a band named after this record!
The album is simply too beautiful for this world.