Released last year amidst a flurry of documentaries on Radio 1,2 and 4, "Tilt" is Noel Engels first album since 1987s "Climate Of Hunter", and to say its stunning is to trivialise its monumental achievement: I cant think of any other record with this amount of ambition that succeeds on such a grand scale. "Tilt" marries highbrow lyricism that deals with, amongst other subjects, addiction, religion, justice and the late Italian film director Pasolini, with bewilderingly eclectic music, from the harsh bursts of Nine Inch Nails-style industrial noise that punctuate "The Cockfighter" to the gorgeous but never sentimental orchestrations of "Farmer In The City", and the atonal unaccompanied guitar picking of "Rosary" to the gigantic-sounding pipe organ of the Methodist Central Hall, wherever that may be, that crops up on a few tracks. Although its been trumpeted as a wilfully perverse and difficult album its nowhere near as challenging as, for example, Captain Beefhearts more, uh, inspired moments, but fresh enough to remain interesting over the hundreds of plays it deserves. Bleak, definitely: from the none-more-black cover to lines like (from album highlight (in the sense of even better than all the other tracks) "Patriot (A Single)"):"The good news you cannot refuse/The bad news is there is no news" its not exactly singalong stuff. But Walkers inimitable voice is on superb form throughout, supported by notable session mafia types including John Giblin, Brian Gascoigne, David Rhodes and Louis Jardim. Its been suggested that "Tilt" wouldve been an even better work had it been produced by John Cale, but even so its exactly the sort of album that Bowies last mightve been if hed junked the spurious storyline and recorded it in Berlin in 1977 with Eno and a string section conducted by Iggy Pop. Definitely 1995s best, maybe in the running for album of the decade, "Tilt" is exceptionally strong medicine, but likely to do you good.
SCOTT WALKER Tilt (Drag City)
Ive raved about Noel Engels masterwork in these pages before, but my feeble excuse for mentioning it again is that its just been reissued on Gods own format by the pioneering American (I think, although theyre so unassuming theres not even a contact address anywhere on the packaging, let alone a bar code) label Drag City.
So how does "Tilt" stand up to continued critical scrutiny nearly three years after its release? Astonishingly well, actually: breathtaking in his scope and vision, Scott Walker crowns a four-decade career with what is undoubtedly the most daring work in the rock canon, an intoxicating melange of literature, history, cinema, religion and nature, all set to music that veers wildly between industrial and orchestral, filled out with all manner of otherworldly clanging and howling. Pretentious? It makes "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" look like "Spiceworld", with songs about the late Italian film director Pasolini and which feature excerpts relocated from the trial of Queen Caroline and the trial of Adolf Eichmann, whatever that may mean. For me nothing on here betters the majestic "Patriot", with its chilling refrain The good news/you cannot refuse/The bad news/is there is no news, but the whole album remains almost an hours worth of rigorously intellectual genius, possibly as close as we deserve to get to a "Trout Mask Replica" for the 90s.
SCOTT WALKER Classics & Collectibles (Mercury)
The problem with this double CD compilation is writ large in its title classics and collectibles are two inherently different beasts. If it takes a second mortgage and eBay to track down an impossibly valuable rarity its unlikely that such an item will be able to generate sufficient support amongst an artists fanbase to be accorded classic status. Consequently, Classics & Collectibles offers one disc that appears to function as a random trawl though Scott Engels feted 1960s material, both solo and with a smattering of appearances by the Brothers that werent, and another that trawls through his early 70s output, albums that even the booklet notes admit were recorded in the main to fulfil a contract with Philips. Ill leave you to guess which disc is which.
The album opens with the magisterial orchestral overload of If You Go Away, immediately confirming Walker as the finest Brel interpreter of his generation. (But really, who comes in second? Bowie?) For his early years at Philips, at least, Walker was matched with arrangers and producers that were entirely sympathetic to his grand schemes, resulting in the kind of flagrant artistic ambition its hard to imagine being cosseted in the bosom of a media and consumer electronics empire these days. In My Room is typical of the huge, reverberant Spectoresque sound that producer John Frantz conjured up for The Brothers, and the lustrous gloom of The Sun Aint Gonna Shine Anymore (presented in be still my beating heart! an alternate mono mix) remains gloriously unfettered forty years after the fact. Its Over might border the crooner-for-hire years, but this Jimmie Rogers song couldve been tailored precisely to his own morbid fascinations; similarly, Joanna is pop fluff but, at the dawn of his solo career, he still gives it his all.
Angels Of Ashes is the first of the too few self-compositions represented here, an exercise in otherness that from a distance sounds like the airbrushed MOR showbiz personality his label would later attempt to mould him into, but bristles and barbs snag through the crushed velvet when you brush up close to it. In fact, tap in those ten Scott songs and the three Brel covers and youve got a handy primer of his groundbreaking early work. Its just a stamina-sapping shame that the aforementioned represents barely a third of this compilation. Mathilde, a Brel song, is elaborately and vibrantly over the top, like being buried alive in Christmas decorations. Actually recorded by The Walker Brothers, Orpheus shows Scott following his distinctive muse even whilst a band member, this multi-threaded mini-epic sounds like a dry-run for the later greater Plastic Palace People. Jackie is all whiplash flourish: Marc Almond had the bigger hit, but he wasnt battling against a BBC ban. Besides, Trevor Horns robotic high-energy backing, glorious as it is, just cant swoop and swoon like Wally Stotts arrangement does here.
Another of Walkers own compositions, The Bridge, betrays an obvious debt to Brel with its references to wine and piss, but its alternately twinkling and coal-dark observations dont lag too far behind the master at all. Nevertheless he streamlines and clarifies his style on Its Raining Today, finding ecstasy in the everyday, magnificence in the mundane. The dissonant orchestrations hanging behind Such A Small Love like a cloudbank suggest Ligeti; the lines Someone should have stopped the birds from singing today/Hammers from striking their nails into clay chill the marrow of perhaps the most startling, starkest lyric he would write until his 80s resurrection, never mind the shabby, betrayed gentility of With my one suit/Badly pressed and worn and A drunken madman nights/Ending up in jail. I dont know whether this or Plastic Palace People (I know I keep mentioning it; Ill get to it!) represents this CDs peak. The early country strains of Rhymes Of Goodbye closed out Scott 4, and compared to the brilliant, if overwrought, orchestrations deployed elsewhere, he sounds positively fresh-faced here, if hardly likely to be mistaken for Gram Parsons.
His interpretation of Brels Next apparently had Philips executives quaking, its vivid tale of sex reduced to commoditised entertainment is recounted in lines like I swear on the wet head/Of my first case of gonorrhoea; in more enlightened times it was sampled by The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu and Orbital. Plastic Palace People is that other peak: drearily hallucinatory passages, like psychedelia in black and white, alternate with a perfect Bacharachian pop sensibility.
The contents of the collectibles side of the equation owe their rarity value to the fact that most of these have never been issued on CD until now. And why do you think that might be? Certainly, listening to the music of Scotts crooner years brings to mind Greil Marcus assessment of Rod Stewart: Rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely. Even the booklet notes admit of Speak Softly Love (Theme From The Godfather), It wasnt the type of material he really wanted to sing, and yet, with this second disc containing not a single Walker writing credit it seems he was too gripped with existential ennui to do anything about it; a prototypical Bryan Ferry if ever there were.
Consequently, the second half of Classics & Collectibles is swamped with the work of John Barry, Rogers & Hammerstein, Michel Legrand, Henry Mancini, Paul Anka, Lalo Schifrin, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Charles Aznavour, with predictably mainstream results. Theres a rare moment such as The Impossible Dream where its almost possible to hear what the old Scott wouldve done with such material, and songs by Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb at least give him something substantial to chew over. The small group jazz setting of Easy Come, Easy Go (Theme From They Shoot Horses Dont They?) might have been an interesting conceit had it been applied to a more robust composition.
So, Classics & Collectibles is riven by its implied divide. Theres nothing of interest here that cant be found elsewhere in the artists discography, which is probably best approached by diving straight into the wealth of magnificent music he released under his own name between 1967 and 1969.
SCOTT WALKER The Drift (4AD)
I enjoyed Climate Of Hunter, felt Tilt was a masterpiece, but with The Drift, Scott Walkers first album in 11 years, Noel Engel seems to have intellectualised himself into a corner. Yes, these songs have a chilling gravitas; theyre deadly serious about themselves, and in their cool, antiseptic fashion they chip away at the preconceived limitations of popular music. A 13 minute anti-epic concerning the execution of Mussolini and his lover? Check. A song about an ailing Elvis communing with the spirit of his stillborn twin brother, soundtracked by a ghostly echo of the Jailhouse Rock riff? Oh yes. But where its predecessors managed to make their bleak, rigorous soundscapes compelling and, for listeners of a certain frame of mind, entertaining, these blocks of sound and broken rhythms nothing so crass as a melody, of course; theres not a song here you could actually whistle or hum are just oppressive. In fact, at times the music suggests looped fragments of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Bands Trout Mask Replica timestretched to a funereal pace. For me the distance between The Drift and the aforementioned Tilt is akin to the difference between the work of Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Where, in their earlier incarnation, the Canadian collectives albums offered both tension and cathartic release, their later work just left the listener hanging and, well, drifting.
The Drift has its moments, of course. Theres the blackest of humour in lines such as You could easily picture this in the current top ten, Its hard to pick the worst moment and Dont think it hasnt been fun because it hasnt. The credits include shout outs to Jarvis Cocker and Austrian industrial types Fuckhead, along with the instruction that the album should be played at high volume, probably not a brilliant idea given how scratchy the British vinyl pressing sounds in places. Vaughan Olivers few-more-black artwork atones for the sleeve of TV On The Radios latest, and although the LP-sized lyric booklet seems a bit excessive at least it includes the odd helpful footnote to render the songs marginally less opaque. But, on the other hand, the Donald Duck impersonation he breaks into during The Escape, the percussive meat punching on Clara and Jolson And Jones finger-popping non-chorus Ill punch a donkey through the streets of Galway well, moments like that are beyond any possible Fast Show Jazz Club parody. Credit to Mr Walker for making an album so resolutely adult in its themes and inspirations, but, in stark contrast to its predecessors, I dont think my life would be in any way poorer if I never heard The Drift again.
SCOTT WALKER Scott 3 (Fontana)
Another iTunes voucher purchase of an album Ive coveted for years, Scott 3 finds the former and future Walker Brother inching further away from the swoonsome pop performer of yore towards Bergmanesque existentialism. Save for three of his trademark Jacques Brel covers that close the album, it was also self-penned.
Its Raining Today opens the album in a haze of smoke and precipitation, Walker sounding like Paul Buchanans long-lost great uncle, his doomed vocals wrapped up in Wally Stotts lavish, velveteen arrangements. In an age when the concept of a string section on a rock record has been perhaps irrevocably tarnished by any number of overambitious Britpop bands mistaken belief that it lends a Beatley gravitas to their 60s borrowings, its genuinely astonishing to be confronted by orchestrations that are so essential to a song. Of course, it helps that Walker had the resources of a major record label to back his flights of dark fancy, and its to Philips credit that they didnt skimp.
Copenhagen might initially seem like a crack in the clouds, but the lines Were snowdrops falling in the night/Well melt again before we land suggest otherwise, and the introduction to Big Louise sounds like the grave opening up. Perhaps ironically for the work of an American, Rosemary sounds almost like an Anglicised, cold water flat equivalent to Paul Simons contemporaneous writing (Scott 3 was released in April 1969), with its impassive yet forensic observation of its protagonists shabby opulence.
We Came Through sounds, even though it doesnt read, like a dramatic, widescreen Western theme, an unwitting precursor of Walkers own imminent tumble into MOR covers of film songs, and the miniature Butterfly seems as insubstantial as its title. Shorter still at barely 90 seconds, 30 Century Man, with its slashing acoustic guitar and sneering vocal, is certainly Donovanesque, even if it doesnt reach quite as far as Dylanesque. Two Weeks Since Youve Gone finds Scott standing tall in front of the orchestra, yet hes also crumpled and cryptic (I havent been back since I mistook somebody for a friend). Of that climactic triumvirate of Brel songs, Sons Of creeps in on tiptoes to the clangourous reticence of what sounds like a schoolroom piano badly in need of a tune, Funeral Tango is impishly mischievous and, well, If You Go Away is pretty much a calling card for Walkers interpretive genius.
Compared to last years proudly impenetrable The Drift, Scott 3 sounds like pop music, but the pop music of an improbably advanced alien nation. (Youll find no hits here, even though three months after its release the bipolar artist was in the top 20 with the syrupy Lights Of Cincinnati, Two Weeks Since Youve Gone relegated to the flipside.) Its a magnificent album, and if the work of Simon & Garfunkel or Leonard Cohen speaks to you, its not that much of a stretch into the unknown.