Thursday, April 18, 2013

SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)

I don't need my music to be intellectual. I'm as much a sucker for melody as the next guy and I have no problem with a catchy tune even if it is about the silliest of topics.

But I also am fascinated by the boundary pushers, by the fringe dwellers, by the writers who will risk alienating the listener with atonal progression or with lyrical subjects that go beyond what is traditionally covered in mainstream pop music.

No one goes further in this direction than Scott Walker. Until 1995's "Tilt" his catalog is bizarre from time to time but there is always a melody to hang your hat on. Lyrically he might be challenging or difficult but his singing and the orchestration could always be counted on to settle into something pleasing at the very least and achingly beautiful at the best moments.

From "Tilt" onwards, Walker has been steadily exploring areas of music that are farther and farther away from traditional song structure and melody.

Atonal music can seem the refuge of the melodically challenged. So when someone with the melodic gifts of Scott Walker goes down that road, it carries more weight for me. It's like Charlize Theron in "Monster". When you consider how she COULD have looked to play the part, how she COULD have portrayed herself, the invisible absence adds power. Scott Walker is simply no longer interested in traditional melody.

Many of his original fan base find this trend to be deliberately off-putting. They long for the killer combo of challenging lyrical content with impossible orchestral beauty.

But Scott Walker has other things in mind.

Take "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)" from last year's "Bish Bosch". I would post a link but it is almost twenty two minutes long. It opens with Walker's voice alone and then goes places that are so out there that they seem alien, past humanity. The difference between this and a normal song is like the difference between an episode of "Seinfeld" and Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" cycle.

I won't even attempt to describe the sounds. To really grasp what Walker is after, you must know the intellectual underpinnings that keep the song from collapsing in on itself. The SDSS14+13B in the title is actually the name/location of a brown dwarf, the "SDSS" standing for Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Zercon is the name of an actual human dwarf, a jester in the court of Attila the Hun. He is not a fictional character. His name is contained in records kept by Chinese emissaries sent to engage in diplomatic negotiations with Attila.

And "flagpole sitting" was a fad in the early 20th century where someone would make a platform on top of a flagpole and sit up there for as long as they could stand.

How are these three disparate things connected? Walker doesn't leave this to your imagination. In the liner notes to "Bish Bosch", he explains his thinking. Zercon is performing for Attila. The conditions are heinous. In spite of his exalted position, he is still exposing himself to derision and scorn with each performance, his master is one of the more brutal figures in history and any kind of escape to comfort is impossible.

Zercon, while enduring taunts and jeers,through his imagination attempts to raise himself out of the Hell on earth he is trapped in. He projects himself forward in time, searching for a higher position. He manages to locate the early 20th century, becoming a flagpole sitter. But here too he must endure the taunts of onlookers so he projects himself higher and higher. Eventually his despair propels him so high that he is transformed from a human dwarf into a brown dwarf.

But the irony is that brown dwarves are stars that have cooled to the point that they no longer emit light. Or, in other words, they are dead. His attempt at escape, while spectacularly successful in a variety of ways, is ultimately his undoing.

So now that you've been properly warned, here is a link to a youtube video of the whole song in all of its twisted glory.

Scott Walker's "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)".

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ingmar Bergman and Scott Walker: The Seventh Seal

The year was 1969. Scott Walker had been on an incredible creative streak. He'd released three albums in quick succession, each a massive success. "Scott 3" had consisted of ten Walker originals with four Brel songs, dispensing with the show-tune standards and country croon. Sales had dipped slightly but there was no reason to assume that was anything but a small hiccup. His next was to be his first entirely original album. He was primed for his masterpiece.

He delivered.

And no one was listening.

The liner notes to "Scott 4" contain a quote from Albert Camus, "A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."

Twelve years earlier when Scott was an American teenager crooning silly love songs underneath a pompadour, Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" was released to international acclaim. Perhaps Walker's teenage heart opened upon seeing it because he opens "Scott 4" with his own version, a lyric masterpiece that somehow rhymes the entire film to a great melody.

Walker has said that he was most excited about moving to Europe so that he could be in the midst of European cinema, and that one of his heroes was unquestionably Ingmar Bergman. This album, for Walker, was not the tail end of a period of work, it was to be the beginning. He was finally out from under the shadow of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", he'd shaken off the silly trappings of fabricated boy-band fame and now he was about to declare himself as a writer for the ages.

The tragedy is that he did so in such definitive fashion that he alienated whatever fan base he had left. His musical vision is uncompromising, academic, intellectual and foreboding. In an era when male sex symbols in music were delving into the blues and allowing audiences vicarious hedonistic pleasure, Walker was writing about fascism, existential angst, the political fallout in post Holocaust Europe and the magnification of personal pain by larger societal forces.

Not exactly "come on baby light my fire".

To wit, listen to "The Seventh Seal". If you haven't seen the film, know that this is a spoiler of the most drastic sort since it somehow tells the entire movie in five minutes.

In some other universe, this album would have sent Walker into the stratosphere of worldwide success. Instead it was a penultimate swan song of sorts, and it's failure meant that it would be his only all-original album until 1984's "Climate of Hunter".

This gives the music a tragic tint, the slight tinge of what might have been, what never was.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Time Operator/Answering Machine: Westerberg and Walker

There are almost no musical connections between Paul Westerberg and Scott Walker. Aesthetically they could not be further apart. Westerberg is all rawness and emotion, Walker is all finesse and intellect. Westerberg rarely does more than one take because he literally loses the meaning of the song if he has to recreate anything, Walker is so meticulous that you can listen to his entire oeuvre and not hear a single intake of breath.

There is only one moment of intersection. Each incorporated a pre-recorded message from the phone company on a song.

Fifteen years and a continent apart.

On 1970's overlooked masterpiece "Til The Band Comes In", Walker wrote a song called "Time Operator". Given the mystical nature of most of his work, the first thought the title invokes is some kind of exploration of temporal dislocation in the face of modern alienation. But, no. In England, you could call a certain number and a "time operator" would literally tell you what time it was.

The song opens with a recording of the BT Speaking Clock over a lonely late night string figure which segues into a sax trill. Walker begins his trademark croon and the song shifts into a piano bar shuffle in which he asks the time operator to meet him since they are both awake. It is a sexy lonely tune. It ends with Walker saying "I wouldn't care if you're ugly/'Coz here with the lights out I couldn't see/You just picture Paul Newman/And girl he looks a lot like me".

This might be the first reference to phone sex ever recorded. The picture Walker paints is that of a lonely brooding man unable to connect with anything concrete. He calls the anonymous speaking clock and tries to seduce the voice he hears. Buried deep here is a kind of humor, since clearly there isn't an actual woman on the line but merely a recording of one. Walker is essentially talking to himself.

In Westerberg's "Answering Machine", as might be expected, this whole situation is inverted. Westerberg is calling a specific girl, she isn't there, he gets her answering machine. He always gets her answering machine. He has so many things he wants to say. Knowing that he will merely be putting his voice on tape leaves him lost and lonely. He wails, "Try and free a slave of ignorance/Try and teach a whore about romance/How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?/How do you say good night to an answering machine?/How do you say I'm lonely to an answering machine?/Message is very plain/Oh, I hate your answering machine".

As this sentiment snarls inside of the distorted guitar figure that propels the song, an impersonal female voice emerges, asking "if you need help if you need help if you'd like to make a call please hang up and try again".

The effect is devastating. It moves past the literal occurrence of trying to reach someone and gets at the panic and loss that you feel when you are isolated. The song becomes the inner monologue of someone contemplating the end of something, not the pain of trying to get in touch. The guitar sound is anthemic and soaring. The sound of it immediately cries out for drums, for a guitar solo, for the song to explode into the rock and roll triumph that is obvious in the melody and singing. But it never comes. Westerberg is alone at the heart of it.

These two writers are about as far apart stylistically as you can get. They are also my favorites.

Listen to Scott Walker's "Time Operator" off of 1970's "Til The Band Comes In" and The Replacements "Answering Machine" off of 1984's "Let It Be".