ne of the most anomalous figures of the late 1960s and singular voices in music history, Scott Walker rose to fame as a pin-up idol with the British Invasion group the Walker Brothers. The odd thing was that they were neither British nor brothers. Walker was actually Scott Engel, born and raised in Ohio. It was the first bait-and-switch in a career of uncalculated subversion.
On his first four solo albums—released between 1967 and 1969—Walker positioned himself as a balladeer, singing over lush string and horn arrangements. Yet rather than the genre’s usual topics of young love or hard luck, he spun tales of prostitutes, homoerotic sexual awakening, or the existential, Sisyphean struggle of vulnerable, damaged souls. After three increasingly literate and offbeat solo records, Scott 4 was the first of all-originals from this former song interpreter, and it’s the oddest and best of the bunch.
Strangely, it’s also the most straightforward. The excess and bombast of his earlier work is toned down and the eccentricities of his fractured tales aren’t as laid bare. (Because of this perhaps, Walker’s earliest solo albums are more immediately rewarding, contrasted with the later works being more satisfying over time) Ignoring his populist urges damaged his sales—after his other three solo albums hit the top three in the UK, this record didn’t even chart. It didn’t help that unlike Scott’s “Mathilde” or Scott 2’s “Jackie” there aren’t any rollicking, upbeat singles. Just as likely, would-be buyers likely lost patience as Walker abandoned song interpretations (including Tim Hardin, Weil/Mann, and most frequently and famously, the fractured and bawdy cabaret of Jacques Brel) for his own work. When Walker does look beyond himself it’s no longer to draw portraits of the disaffected or the lovelorn, but to philosophical looks at established cultural (Ingmar Bergman) or political figureheads (Josef Stalin) or sharp topical vignettes (“Hero of the War”’s third-generation combat casualty).
It’s a move that put him in line with the increasing focus on artistic intent and authorship in rock, but made him the anithesis of a pop star and a crooner. Ever contradictory, Walker’s abandonment of the personality-plus-professionalism model of pop for his earlier, more popular creations made his music richer.In an era in which adopting personal expression meant grandiosity (most explicitly in soul’s move from Motown to Wattstock and pop’s from the Brill Building to Woodstock), Scott 4 was more restrained than its predecessors. And the album’s more brisk, confident arrangements and increased vocal control revealed a new subtle set of influences—from folk to Morricone to Mingus to Spanish guitar. Even Walker’s now introspective songs—tales of self-examination, aging, mortality, and resignation—are often condensed to three minutes or less. It’s all that his pain can muster, and the economy of scale improves their impact as the consequences of self-awareness nag at, rather than smack, the listener just as they do at Walker.
Like the knight from the “Seventh Seal,” the Bergman film which inspired and shares its name with album’s first song, Walker’s personal crusade ended here with him finally completely asserting himself. “My life is a vain pursuit,” he admits early on most personal record to date—which upon its release was credited to Scott Engel. For a pop star, shedding layers of image and revealing bits of self is usually artistically limiting (see: the Monkees), a delusion of grandeur (see: Michael Jackson), or both (see: John Lennon). With Walker, the process fostered humility. His personal songwriting isn’t a privileged look into the world of Scott Walker, pop star; it’s the ruminations of everyman Scott Engel, and it’s emotionally engaging and touchingly graceful.
Reviewed by: Scott Plagenhoef
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01