Sunday, August 30, 2009

Drifting into the black with Scott Walker

I discovered Scott Walker via the slightly circuitous route of David Sylvian, reading a review of one of Sylvian's later albums, Blemish, where the reviewer noted that it was weird but not as weird as Scott Walker's later work. I guess I have always been a little drawn to the weird, and so bought Scott Walker's two latest albums, Tilt (1995) and the Drift (2006) a couple of days ago. In some ways, I guess that neither of these albums are like music at all in the traditional sense - especially the Drift - but the enormous power of these sounds, as arresting as they are chilling, shows us once again how many shapes and forms music can take.

the Drift is made of ten horrifyingly bleak tracks (well, nine, really - the last track, "A Lover Loves", provides the album's only glimpse of peace). The music switches from moments of barren emptiness to sudden hair-raising, spine-chilling bursts of sound, coming from haunted combinations of symphonic orchestra, bizarre electronic sounds and even, at one stage, the beat of a baseball bat on a dead animal carcass. Timpani pound beneath dark discordant strings; unworldly winds wail and whine in the night. And Scott Walker's voice is itself both beautiful and ghostly at the same time - an almost operatic baritone, rich and cavernous. The songs have strange lyrics and strange topics - often difficult to understand in any conventional way - such as "Clara", with its ghastly outbursts of terror, inspired by the public hanging of Mussolini and his girlfriend; or "Jesse", eerie and anguished, based on tales of Elvis Presley talking to his stillborn twin brother. The lyrics are strewn with odd, unsettling images, as with the opening lines of "Jolson and Jones", "As the grossness of spring lolls its head against the window" or, in "Cue", "chiming like mouse bells at the birth of a vermin Holy Ghost".

Scott Walker himself says his aim is to create "blocks of sound" rather than a linear flow of melodies and rhythms. The lyrics work similarly - phrases and images, rather than a story.

He's not the first to do that and certainly much avant garde classical music does similar things - but nowhere have I heard it done with such powerful, jaw dropping intensity as here, nor with such evocative use of sounds, combined in ways that surely no one else would ever have thought would work so well. It comes together to produce an overwhelming impact, and you probably need to be in the right sort of space, emotionally, to be able to withstand its force. This music needs to be played loudly, and in the dark. It's nighmarish stuff - but then nightmares are part of life, too, after all.


  1. I am being deadly serious, Ian, when I say that "horrifying, nightmarish music," has no place whatsoever in my life. You've got to have time and solitude and darkness (physical and metaphorical). Plus you have to WANT to listen to horrifying, nightmarish music, or, like hypnotism, at least be open to it. So, give my regards to Scott Walker...

    I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog, Ian, and I love how you're so moved by the music you listen to. I've felt unable to contribute much, but here's something. I had one of those magical, wonderful evenings with my son Ben (11) wandering along a perfect river meandering through the mountains in Jasper, idly chucking in stones, and talking about anything that crossed our minds. Music was on his mind, and I mentioned your blog. "Has he listened to U2?" was his first question. Then: "How about Prince?". So, here's some suggestions: U2 -- Rattle and Hum (particularly Angel of Harlem), and Achtung Baby (one album that I've listened to in it's entirety and which was the soundtrack of a perfect year I spent in England). And Prince, well, I could rattle off a number of singles, but I'm going to get back to you on the albums.

    I'll work on the dark, apocalyptic thing, but cheerfulness and sanity are difficult things to shelve.

  2. Hi Ian
    Did you ever listen to Scott Walker in the late 1960s, when he was a Walker Brother ('Make it easy on yourself', 'The sun ain't gonna shine any more')? He was a heart-throb and, accordingly, I hated his music! (Although I thought that he had a fantastic voice - such a waste!) I then heard no more until last year, when a member of my music group did a Scott Walker retrospective that ended with ... 'Jesse'!

    My, hasn't the boy come far! I wonder what happened along the way. Very wierd stuff ... but delightfully different from the bland machine music that constitutes much contemporary popular music ... and so to U2.

    Am I the only person in the world that finds them boring and monotonous? Now, I'm not one to dismiss monotones as such - after all, I grew up listening to Little Richard. But when you present a monotone in such an overblown, pumped-up, self-important way, then you have U2.

    I've just bought a 2nd-hand copy of 10cc's LP 'How dare you!' (1975). I used to have this on tape, but I've long had a broken tape recorder, so I've not heard it for years. What a shame! It's funny, it's fun, it's clever but, when appropriate, it rocks! Listen to 'I'm Mandy - fly me', the story of a man who looks at an airline poster and slips into a dream ... and an extraordinary dream it is. You clearly enjoy using language, Ian, so I think you'll like the lyrics on the album - they repay a close listen.

    And finally ... Another of my music group introduced me to Nouvelle Vague - a French band that does 'covers' of (mostly) 1980s pop. Many of them are very effective and some are musically very funny (e.g. their version of Talking Heads' 'Road to nowhere').

    Would you trust this man with your ears?

  3. Some interesting thoughts there Patrick. No, I haven't heard any of Scott Walker's earlier stuff yet, although I have read quite a bit about the cataclysmic changes in his style between then and now. I gather he was somewhat Frank Sinatraesque in his younger days.

    Re U2 - I haven't found the boredom element there yet but then, on the other hand, when all of this is new to me anyway, my capacity to be bored is perhaps not yet very developed ... but then also, I guess, part of my aim in writing these posts has been to look into the music that I listen to, and try to find what's good in it - perhaps something of a penance for having ignored it so much for so long. So in that sense, I suppose what I am writing here are not exactly reviews, but something rather more like propaganda.

    Thanks very much for the 10cc's suggestion, and the Nouvelle Vague suggestion - sounds fascinating and definitely worth another excursion to some of Melbourne's more obscure CD shops during my lunch break.