Monday, May 23, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On #33 - Scott Walker – Scott 4 (Mercury/Fontana)

There are two seemingly irreconcilable Scott Walkers. The first Scott Walker was an Ohio-born teen idol who seduced every girl in England with his dreamy looks, Sinatra-baritone and epic ballads. The second Scott Walker, the one working in the last twenty-five years, is a fiercely independent artist, skirting the outer edges of avant-garde pop music. These two men have seemingly nothing in common, except that they are in fact the same man. And, in between these two polar opposite points is an album he made in 1969 called Scott 4.
After leaving pinup idols The Walker Brothers in 1967, Scott had attempted to shed his teenybopper Tom Jones-like image and stretch out artistically. On his first three solo albums Scott showed that he was already different from he rest, spinning tales involving undesirable fringe characters set to lush but often discordant arrangements, completely at odds with what was happening in the music world at the time. By 1969 and Scott 4, he had moved so far away from acceptable subject material and the musical mainstream that his audience abandoned him. Ironically, it is this move away from the formulaic that has made Scott's catalogue so richly rewarding, and turned Scott into a figure of contemporary fascination.
If you'd been one of the hundreds of people who had bought this LP in 1969, you would have immediately noticed that this was not the usual record, even for Scott Walker. Beside shots of a serious Scott is an impenetrable Albert Camus quote and a still from Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal. And then there is a photograph of Joseph Stalin. Upon putting the record on your turntable, you would realize that the starkness, otherness and haunting imagery wasn't on the cover only, but in the grooves as well.
Bergman's 1957 existential classic is retold in the stunning opening cut, “The Seventh Seal.” Flamenco guitar and trumpets start things off in dashing style, as Scott narrates the grim goings-on of various knights, doomed witches and Death himself. Given the personal nature of his material at this point, the knight's lament “My life is a vain pursuit” sounds piercingly autobiographical. Following on, we are treated to a series of relatively stripped back vignettes, each more gorgeous than the last.
“The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime)” is an oddly upbeat saga of Soviet terror magnificently set with a male voice choir and lazy Serge Gainsbourg-esque backing. “Angels of Ashes” is a dreamsong that, unlike his more recent nightmarish work, hints that Scott may have inhabited a world of ecstatic beauty during the twilight hours. Best of all is the profound “Boy Child,” a philosophical number with an utterly unique orchestral backing. It's spine tingling stuff, if you let yourself in. You've never heard anything like “Hero of the War,” an ironic tale of a veteran-turned-vegetable set to a killer Bo Diddley beat and phased strings. In the middle of all that, there are “Duchess” and “The World's Strongest Man,” two of the most achingly beautiful love songs ever written.
Scott 4 is the most dazzling work by one of pop music's most brilliant minds, and one of the genre's few flirtations with true greatness. His vocal styling was a huge influence on David Bowie and Bryan Ferry and his singular artistic quest continues to inspire legions of respected music acts from The Smiths and Nick Cave to Radiohead and Portishead. Listen, and see why. 
- Ben Sumner

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