A few years ago I was introduced to the god like genius of Scott Walker (real name Engel) via a TV Documentary called 30th Century Man. I’d heard the name before and knew that David Bowie had covered his song Nite Flights.
The documentary described Scott as a transgressive artist; an Orpheus who had returned from the Underworld as a changed man.
Scott Engel originally became famous in the 1960s boy band, The Walker Brothers, thus acquiring his new name. He was encouraged to write his own songs, to earn more royalties from record sales.
His sublime baritone and enigmatic otherworldliness made him the interesting one in the band. Back then he was the standard other singers were judged against, but now his style sounds dated, like Elvis singing Opera with an audacious vibrato.
He went solo in 1967 pursuing unusual career choices. His albums were absurdly over orchestrated and firmly aimed at an arty MOR audience. He covered the standards, but instead of the obligatory Bob Dylan or Leoanard Cohen covers were songs by Jaques Brel. But most outstanding of all were Scott’s own compositions. Although one can hear elements of Brel, beat poetry, 1960s anthropology, Burt Bacharach and Stravinsky, his songs were utterly unique.
If I can find any common element, they all contain at least one magical musical movement that induces levitation. And while a few recordings, like Rhymes of Goodbye, The Old Mans Back Again, Such a Small Love and The Bridge are perfect, Scott’s capacity to annoy his audience by getting things slightly wrong is without parallel. So many songs only orbit nirvana or crash back to Earth because of a fault in the production, like a lack of conviction in the backing vocals (The Plague). Maybe Scott was too ambitious. But even his failures were more interesting than most people’s successes.
Scott’s first three solo albums sold well, but his fourth, Scott IV, ironically his best, flopped spectacularly.
Scott has blamed his third album for the failure of the fourth. Although Scott III contained several amazing compositions (like the song about transvestite Big Louise), it was also the most overtly ornate and sickly. If you liked Scott, by then you probably had all you needed of him. It wasn’t so much a falling out of love as an overdose. Also he was a man out of time being almost the antithesis of where music was going. Or maybe it flopped because on its first release it listed him as Scott Engel, rather than Walker.
Failure seems to have been catastrophic for Scott. He retreated to alcohol and what he hoped would be a safe career of MOR slush. Most sadly of all, he stopped writing. He became legendary as a recluse.
But by the end of the 1970s Scott had become cool again. Other artists dropped his name in awe and the Walker Brothers album, Nitefligts included 4 wonderful new Scott compositions. It was as if creativity had burst his dams. But he had changed; the voice was older and though it had lost nothing of its power, his vision was darker and the candy coating had gone.
I believe that soon after this, maybe during the recording of Climate of Hunter, Scott gave up on the idea of conventional fame and success. He had already had his fingers burnt and wasn’t prepared to play that game again. So he intentionally decided to write and perform difficult songs that had no danger of charting.
Instead Scott made himself vulnerable as an artist and experimented. He put his whole being into the songs with a strange mix of gross and beautiful, discord and harmony. The songs still make you fly, but often by ripping the world away from under you and leave you floating in vast distorting spaces. They still have the same Scott curse, only a few work perfectly. But even with their imperfections, they are magnificent. On first hearing, they assault the senses, obsessing and confusing the listener. But on each listening more poetry and melody is revealed. It is like an endless quest; how I feel about his music now is not how I will feel in a years time.
But I am wary of recommending him to you. Maybe you are not ready to have your relationship to music changed. But if you want to jump in the deep end, why not try Brando? Then you might want to try Tilt, The Drift & Bish Bosch.