The tendency to label Scott Walker a recluse says a lot more about the cultural norms of the music industry than it does about Scott Walker. During the second half of his life, he released music at a decent rate, collaborated with musicians and film directors, and granted good-natured interviews.
He was not exactly JD Salinger. He simply refused to give some people what they wanted, namely live shows and new music that bore some resemblance to the revered quartet of albums that he recorded during the late 1960s. In any other artform, this would have been considered quite normal behaviour. Only in pop music is refusing to revisit the past interpreted as a kind of psychological malady.
It’s a grim coincidence that Walker’s death, at the age of 76, comes exactly a month after that of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis. Both men began their careers in the pop mainstream – Walker with the Walker Brothers, Hollis with Talk Talk’s synth-pop apprenticeship – and gravitated towards the fringes, to the point where live performance no longer seemed appropriate. Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Walker’s Tilt are both landmarks to integrity: totemic examples of musicians decisively choosing the challenge of art over the rewards of commerce and refusing to look back. The crucial difference between the two is that Hollis simply stopped, having reached the conclusion of his artistic journey, whereas Walker pressed on until the very end.
Noel Scott Engel learned early on that compromise was toxic. He enjoyed success in his early 20s as the handsome, sonorous star of the Walker Brothers (they weren’t brothers, and none were born Walker), with a string of broken-hearted melodramas. He then launched his solo career with four spellbinding albums (simply titled Scott 1-4) that began by leaning heavily on the songbook of Jacques Brel before he found his feet as a songwriter in his own right.
The erstwhile lovelorn heart-throb was now wrapping the dark velvet of his baritone around distinctly European stories of Stalin, Bergman and brooding outsiders. Jarvis Cocker recently said that Plastic Palace People from Scott 2 “expanded my idea of what a song could mean”. Fans such as Nick Cave, Alex Turner, Marc Almond, Thom Yorke, Julian Cope and – were he still with us – David Bowie might pick different songs, but they all share that sense of revelation. There’s a wonderful 2006 documentary, 30th Century Man, in which the camera studies the faces of his famous fans as they listen to those records and captures something like awe.
Walker’s first reinvention hit the buffers with 1970’s ‘Til the Band Comes In, a hasty, half-hearted affair which fizzled out with a series of unwise cover versions. Three decades later, Cocker included “the second side of ‘Til the Band Comes In” in a list of artistic disappointments in Pulp’s Bad Cover Version, a song that was actually produced by Scott Walker. Cocker concluded that Walker either didn’t notice or didn’t disagree. Fogged by alcohol and tranquilisers, Walker seemed lost during the 1970s – “I think I did temporarily go crazy, because I don’t remember the period at all very well,” he later said – until the galvanising shock of his contributions to the reunited Walker Brothers’ 1978 album. Lead single The Electrician, which obliquely described the work of a CIA torturer, was not a hit; but then Walker was done with hits and the self-defeating concessions required to get them, haunted by the records he had made in bad faith to please somebody else. The pop star was dead; the avant-garde composer was being born.
It’s fair to say that Walker was a recluse at one point, between Climate of Hunter in 1984 and Tilt in 1995. That hiatus, during which he drew and painted, gave him time to fully realise a new approach to music that was as extraordinary as those four Scott albums, while sounding absolutely nothing like them. On Tilt, The Drift (2005) and Bish Bosch (2011), he plunged into the bloodbath of the 20th century (Mussolini, Eichmann, Ceausescu), which he dramatised with an appropriately nightmarish fusion of industrial clamour and dissonant classical music, and related in a traumatised, strangulated version of his famous croon. The lyrics dictated the sound, he explained. He had no choice. “I’ve got a lot of respect for his integrity,” Bowie said when Tilt came out. “He’s true to himself, whereas other artists are traitors to themselves.”
At first, listening to those three albums can feel rather like being buried alive, but as the uncanny beauty and gallows humour become more apparent, so does Walker’s essential humanity. Rather than scaring you away, he is trying to invite you in. I remember reviewing Soused, his 2014 collaboration with Seattle metal band Sunn O))), while walking through the woods and finding its oceanic moans and drones perversely comforting. “He will not protect or guide you,” Eimear McBride wrote in her introduction to his 2018 book of lyrics, Sundog, which is true in terms of decoding his cryptic, impressionistic songs; and yet I always feel that, even in the hellish places, he is on the listener’s side. He once said that his music was a search for meaning and beauty in an ugly, chaotic world.
Soused’s meeting of minds gave the lie to the myth of Walker as a solitary auteur, as did his final two records: the soundtracks to Brady Corbet’s movies Childhood of a Leader and Vox Lux. However harrowing his music could be, in interviews he seemed well-balanced and fulfilled. Last year, he told the Observer’s Alex Clark: “I don’t listen to anything I’ve done once I’ve done it.” One of the advantages of not performing live since 1978 is that he never had to. He added that he didn’t hate his early records; he had just moved on to other things. Nor was he trying to be difficult or impenetrable. “I feel I’m writing for everyone,” he said. “Just they haven’t discovered it yet.” But they will? asked Clark. “They will, yeah,” he said, laughing. “I’ll be six feet under – but they will.