Friday, May 3, 2013

Scott Walker "Miniatures"

In audio taken from one of his BBC TV show broadcasts, Scott Walker introduces the song "Winter Night" from Scott 3 as a "miniature". The late '60's rock scene was all about excess. Everyone was trying to out-epic everyone else. The two minute thirty second hit single was seen as teeny-bopper fodder and artists were looking to move rock into uncharted territory, both in subject matter and length.

Scott Walker, as usual, was operating in another sphere altogether. Some of the song lengths on Scott 3 (of his own composition, not the Brel songs that close the album out) are as follows:

We Came Through 1:59
Butterfly 1:42
30 Century Man 1:29
Winter Night 1:45

Then on Scott 4 there is On Your Own Again which clocks in at 1:48 and 'Til The Band Comes in has Jean The Machine at 2:10 and Cowbell Shakin' at 1:06, barely a snippet.

This seems to be a trend in his work of the period. When compared with the work he's been doing over the past two decades they seem like thoughts that flicker across his mind. Song lengths from his past three albums routinely start at seven minutes at least and stretch to over twenty on Bish Bosch.

But these miniatures as he calls them are not underdone. They are fully realized. They are exactly as long as they need to be. Nothing superfluous, nothing redundant, no need to reiterate.

In fact, if I didn't point out how short We Came Through is you would undoubtedly classify it as an epic. I am linking to a video that pairs the song with a car driving up a parking garage ramp. Ground floor to roof and the song is over. The lyrics posted on the video are incorrect in one crucial spot so I'm going to post them here.

Watch Scott Walker's miniature epic "We Came Through" from Scott 3.

We Came Through

We came through
We came riding through like warriors from afar
Our black horses danced upon the graves
Of yesterday's desires
Haunted by our visions framed in fire

I greet you
For you still believe in what's behind the door
You see children freeze upon their knees
And praying to the wind
To send their grey Madonnas back again

Fire the guns
And salute the men who died for freedom's sake
And we'll weep tonight but we won't lie awake
Gazing up at statues dressed in stars

We won't dream
For they don't come true for us, not anymore
They've run far away to hide in caves
With haggard burning eyes
Their icy voices tear our hearts like knives

We came through
Like the Gothic monsters perched on Notre Dame
We observed the naked souls of gutters
Pouring forth mankind
Smothered in an avalanche of time

And we're giants
As we watch our kings and countries raise their shields
And Guevera dies encased in his ideals
And as Luther King's predictions fade from view

We came through
We came through
We came riding through

All that in under two minutes.

Miniature? Hardly.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Scott Walker Scares An Empty Studio: Rosary

After 1984's "Climate Of Hunter", Scott Walker seemingly disappeared again. "Climate Of Hunter" was a challenging work laced with a strange funkiness. The advent of English New Wave seemed to put Walker's style in a position to possibly connect with a wider audience again. But again, this didn't happen. He did a few awkward TV and radio interviews in support of "Climate" but the slick shallow newly formed MTV aesthetic was a terrible fit for him.

Eleven years pass. 1995's "Tilt" makes "Climate Of Hunter" sound like Lionel Richie in comparison. Walker clearly had decided that any kind of clinging to traditional song structure or attempt at pop melody was no longer part of his palette. He'd been there, done that.

"Tilt" is, in a word, intense. Dense jarring drum noises, gorgeous string orchestral sections laid over horribly violent imagery, a vocal approach that dispenses with verse/chorus/verse/bridge predictability and a headlong rush into a new kind of song where comforting structure simply no longer exists. I don't make distinctions between the "Old Scott Walker" and the "New Scott Walker". It all seems consistent to me. The staggering thing about it is the wide disparity between works of art that come from the same mind. It is as if Samuel Beckett spent years writing popular television, backslid to empty formulaic made for TV movies and spent the last third of his life writing his avant-garde plays.

The commercial landscape had changed so drastically between 1984 and 1995 that "Tilt" actually performed quite well, reaching #27 on the UK Album Chart. Noisy music was finally in the mainstream. Somehow Scott Walker had finally arrived at what he probably should have been all along. An idiosyncratic avant-garde boundary dissolver with a cult following. The massive success of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" had finally settled to an appropriate level.

This "arrival" wasn't heralded by any kind of shift in how Walker did things, however. He didn't embark on a world tour performing all his old hits in a tux and an orchestra while performing his new material with a crack punk band. He merely began the process of waiting for his next album to come to him. Which wouldn't happen until 2006.

He did, however, agree to one momentous occasion. He agreed to perform live on a television program called "Later...with Jools Holland". Jools Holland was a founding member of Squeeze, has a very successful post-Squeeze solo career, and has been hosting a music show for almost twenty years featuring interviews, live performances and impromptu collaboration.

Walker agreed but only if they allowed him to tape his performance without an audience. The clip shows how "Later" handled this, making it appear as if Walker was in a packed studio.

"Tilt" is filled with noise as I said before. The one exception is the song that closes the album, "Rosary". It is also the only track on the album where Walker plays an instrument as well as sings. It is this stark confrontational difficult song that Walker chose to perform. He COULD have chosen anything from the album, brought an impressive bizarre orchestra to showcase the ambitious sonic scope of the album.

Instead Walker chose a song that is so bare, so stripped of recognizable traditional song structure that the result is almost embarrassing, like watching someone in a private moment that they would never want you to see.

I almost never read comment threads but I perused these just to see what people thought. Old fans were dismayed that he was abandoning melody and beauty, those unfamiliar with him wondered how a man who couldn't sing or play guitar got on a TV show and even new fans wondered why he would choose THIS song to sing.

But again, Walker wasn't interested in presenting some IDEA of himself. He'd lost the ability to do that years ago. He was only capable of the performance that was as close to authenticity as he could possibly muster. It is a very disorienting performance. The music seems to be barely written, as if some kind of savant had discovered an electric guitar sitting next to him at a moment of great crisis.

I am not sure of the origin of the following quote but I recently became aware of it through Ricky Gervais' twitter account, which I highly recommend. The quote I refer to is, "If you want to lead the orchestra, you must turn your back on the audience."

Scott Walker took it a step further. He made them leave the room.

Watch Scott Walker perform "Rosary" live from 1995.