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The Boston Phoenix Tilt!

Scott Walker, Cult Hero

By Richard C. Walls

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Singer/songwriter Scott Walker's Tilt was released in the UK in early '95 but is just now showing up stateside on Drag City, and for good reason: the guy's a definitive cult item, and his style allows him to fit snugly on that plucky little label's roster of obtusely doomy, introspective types like Palace Brother Will Oldham and Smog guy Bill Callahan. Walker's music is both spacy and spacious, his lyrics terse cryptograms floating over a music of a grandiose eeriness, his words sung in a rich baritone leaning toward the high end of the range and conveying an oddly mellifluous sense of panic. It's possible to remain clueless about what he is actually going on about while at the same time responding to the emotional core of his anxiously brooding constructs. He is, in short, an artist of an arty type. This was not always the case.

Walker was originally Scott Engel from Ohio, a singer who went to England and achieved some fame in the mid '60s as a member of the pop/rock post-Beatles group the Walker Brothers. Wildly popular among the Brits, the Walkers peaked in the US in '65 with the hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More." After the group broke up, the singer, now Scott Walker, had a brief but huge success in Britain as a solo artist, recording a series of albums that still fascinate in a what's-wrong-with-this-picture sort of way. Ostensibly Walker was in the Engelbert Humperdinck/Tom Jones pop mode and his albums bulged with achingly banal orchestral arrangements, over which his manly baritone swooped. But his penchant for Jacques Brel songs, with their earthy neo-realism, and the odd imagistic flourishes of his own compositions suggested a talent pushing at the boundaries of its kitsch-laden form. (This period of Walker's career is smartly sampled in the recent Razor & Tie collection It's Raining Today: The Scott Walker Story 1967-'70.)

None of this made a dent in the US charts, and eventually the Brits themselves grew tired of the mildly eccentric crooner. There followed some years wandering in the musical desert -- a few solo albums that stiffed, an unfruitful reunion with the original Brothers -- before the singer emerged in '84 with Climate of Hunter. No longer on the pop merry-go-round, Walker was free to indulge himself and make the music that was bubbling under for all those years. Hunter was the earlier singer gone through the looking glass -- a taste for orchestral grandeur and that larger-than-life voice remained, but the songs were dark and bent and opaque. Then nothing for 11 years. Until now.

Tilt is a tough nut to crack. The lyrics come in pithy little groupings that refuse to cohere. "Scalper in the lampglow/Scalper everywhere/Sick wiped shirt?" he sings on "Manhattan," and it doesn't get any easier -- or clearer -- than that. Yet the music compels attention. We're used to hearing fragmented anomie -- by now it's the cutting edge's most durable cliché. Only not done in this near-operatic manner. Walker's singing is fey in the original sense of the word (near-death but still with us), and the aggressively cornball orchestrations of yore have been replaced by soundscapes that move from menacingly sketchy to Nine Inch Nails-type industrial full slam. Religious imagery peeks out, and the feeling of loss is palpable. Much is suggested; in the end, nothing is said.

Hardly a ringing recommendation, then, but you may want to give this a try. Just remember that cult figure are created by a cult mindset. Incomprehension by the larger world is manna for the true believer -- the more opaque Walker's pensées become, the more fiercely his fans will defend his significance. Meanwhile, for those of us outside the temple, he remains an intriguing cipher.


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