n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
For a split second, I thought that “Mathilde” was the greatest song I’d ever heard in my life. At first, “Mathilde” appears to be nothing more than standard cabaret—simply a love song transposed to Broadway tale. It’s only at the chorus, when Walker describes his darling as “wretched” that there’s any indication of where this song is headed. As “Mathilde” unfolds, Walker’s lyrics take a steady, calculating, and nefarious turn. Up until the third verse, he’s referred to his darling Mathilde affectionately, but it’s at this point where everything shifts. The first line, recited over strings of near-Hitchcock paranoia, reads, “My hands, you’ll start to shake again / When you remember all the pain” and is soon after followed by “You’ll want to beat her black and blue.”
Then suddenly, with barely a warning, the music swells up hundredfold, and Walker starts shouting furiously, “MAMA, CAN YOU HEAR ME YELL? / YOUR BABY BOY’S GONE BACK TO HELL,” and he keeps on screaming louder and louder, more passionately with each line until the final ten seconds of the song are a glorious mess of horns and strings and drums and Walker’s growling right at you, “MY SWEET MATHILDE’S HERE / ONCE MORE, ONCE MORE,” those “once more’s” sounding like a goddam werewolf in your eardrum. Curtain.
I could spend another thousand words talking about the sheer brilliance of Scott Walker’s “Mathilde.” Well, actually, it’s not Walker’s, it’s Jacques Brel’s—but I’m willing to wager my life savings that Brel’s original is a urine stain in the corner of an alleyway compared to Scott’s rioting whirlpool pissbucket. Its buildup is nearly unprecedented, its finale so overblown it’s hysterical, its character transformation as frightening as Ivan’s in The Brothers Karamozov, and it’s a gosh darn ingenious work of art. If the Ronettes were Memling’s triptychs, then “Mathilde” is Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
If a blind date as potent and as dynamic as the one that happened when I first heard those obnoxious notes happened everyday, then this would stop being fun. To be fair, hearing Scott one fateful morning was not the first time I heard Scott Walker. I’d seen the impressive Metacritic score for The Drift last summer and knew that I needed to listen to it. The only thing that I knew about Scott Walker beforehand was that he made “30 Century Man,” one of the best musique-en-scene in all of The Life Aquatic. But there was no chance that could have prepared me for the monolithic nightmare of The Drift: a bone orchard of shrieking strings and hellish wails that remains one of the darkest, most deliberately challenging albums I’ve ever heard.
Still, this is technically a legitimate On First Listen, because to compare Scott to The Drift is like comparing a horse to a unicorn. Most likely odd enough to people already familiar with Walker, or perhaps not, I don’t think there’s one moment on all of the aphotic Drift that comes close to being as eccentric, horrifying, or suffocating as “Mathilde.” Disappointingly, neither does most of the material on Scott. The majority of the album is so saccharine that it squeezes corn syrup out of my ears, specifically the pure sentimental mush of his cover of Gene Pitney’s “Angelica,” with a chorus that would shame Donny Osmond.
Now, I understand the ironic contrast between the lachrymose music and the abstract, aberrant lyrics, but the overall product is bloated; right now it’s entirely too maudlin for me to be able to patiently sit down with. Other than the second track “Montague Terrace,” which possesses the almost heavy metal lyric, “The window sees the tree cry from cold / And claw at the moon,” and “Mathilde”’s reflection in Brel’s riotous “Amsterdam” as the finale, the rest of Scott is relatively weak in comparison.
Most importantly, it nearly cheapens the concept itself, as Scott 2 proves. That album improves upon its predecessor by tempering Walker’s gluttony. From the Spanish overtones of the Brel-penned opener “Jackie” to the powerful ballad “Best of Both Worlds” (a song I’ve heard on oldies radio for years and always sworn it was either the Righteous Brothers or Neil Diamond), Scott 2 is simply the better album. Walker markedly improves his singing, particularly in creating vocal melodies, and his songs are more dramatic conceptually rather than aesthetically. The Brel cover “Next,” a disturbing, Burroughs-like tale of homosexuality, abuse, and distorted sex fantasies told over waltzing strings and a fairy tale xylophone, is the proof. But it’s also the fact that Walker begins to reduce his sound, beneficially isolating his instruments rather than lumping them all together.
It is precisely this direction that makes Scott 3 and Scott 4 my absolute favorites. The former consists of mostly Walker-written tunes, with a trio of Brel numbers at the end, and the fact that he doesn’t inject corny standards into his repertoire plays a sizable role in this outcome. That aside, it is primarily because Scott 3 is a much softer affair that makes it so strong. Strings and woodwinds still flitter and flutter, but they’re more elegant and downplayed, and they allow for Walker to relax, seducing you rather than soaking you in schmaltz. Even the Brel choices simmer to fit into the album, and “Sons Of” has a piano so delicate that if a strand of straw swung onto its surface, it would shatter into a million ivory pieces.
Scott 4 similarly abates its arrangements, but it’s a completely different album than Scott 3, and Walker’s best. The strings are merely accoutrements to what is essentially a half-folk, half-country singer/songwriter album, with lyrics that liquefy most of the lazy words that contemporary songwriters string together. “Angels of Ashes,” about as graceful and touching as any melancholy baroque folk-pop can get, has one verse where Walker sings, “They’ll fly in a mind dance / And blind you with wings / Wrapped in flames.” Beautiful imagery, but it’s even more effective because of the voice that delivers it: a ghostly, trembling vibrato that snakes through its melody in such an unusual manner that it somehow becomes the only way to sing the song. This happens repeatedly, as on other highlights such as the gossamer “Boy Child” and the rolling soft rock of “Hero of the War.”
A number of critics and writers think it inexplicable how Scott 2 became a number one album in the U.K., but to me it makes perfect sense. In the late ‘60s, during the peak of psychedelic rock and art-rock, many bands referenced the surrealist paintings of Dalí and the writings of Rimbaud and the Beats, but most of their music only suggested the ideas they had. What I see as the impact and possible genius of Walker’s first four albums was that he took these subjects head on. His albums are populated with characters from all stretches of life, whether it’s the gruesome prostitute in “Big Louise” or the sailor “who eats only fish heads and tails,” in “Amsterdam,” and they each fit into the mutant paradise he has invented. By matching it to extravagant pop orchestras, he takes the template of teenage pop and turns it on its head, deceiving the listener into entering his deformed, perverted playground. Walker’s music is as theatrical as possible, and not by performing high drama, but by establishing an atmosphere where even the most bizarre, repulsive stretches of the imagination can take place.
The final album I listened to was Tilt, his ‘90s album that exists as somewhat of a transition into The Drift. However, it’s also the least interesting, an album of downtown jazz-rock skronk that has neither the extremity of his bookends nor the nuance of Scott’s 2-4. But while I was listening to it, what dawned on me was the relationship between the artist and his most renowned disciple, the frequently and publicly Walker-referencing David Bowie. While Walker is similarly chameleonic, he’s far better at mutating than his adherent. Bowie needs to inhabit a strict role, like Ziggy Stardust, to achieve any sort of artistic narrative. Walker, on the other hand, requires so such design; he weaves in and out of characters, assuming roles as he wishes, sometimes even displaying a character transformation within one song, as on “Mathilde.” Therefore, on his first albums, he’s always “Scott.” That person may be a monstrous, leering, belligerent pervert, but Lady Stardust is a catty, androgynous diva, and while that may be more glamorous, there is no debate, at least in my mind, as to whom is more substantial.