Music Features

Overlooked Albums #1: Scott Walker - Scott 4

Trying to explain the quicksilver caprices of public taste is a fool’s errand. How is it that Scott 4 failed to chart in 1969 after three hit albums in the UK and his own BBC series? Sampling from albums 1-4 today, we are left scratching our heads. The songs from Scott 4 certainly aren’t lacking hooks, or coherent melodies, and the production technique is suitably grandiose in comparison to the earlier records. Yet sitting here more than 40 years on, we can tell that something is different. Some kind of Rubicon has been crossed in Walker’s solo career, and though he would revert disastrously in a vain attempt to recapture the public imagination, he would later pick up where he left off with Nite Flites in 1978, never to look back. Not that a casual listening will reveal the links between the experimental noise rock of 2006’s The Drift and the 60s-pop-drenched Scott 4, but the seeds were there, beginning to sprout.

What were those seeds? On the surface, the record follows the pattern of MOR productions perfected in the 50s – solo voice set against lush symphonic orchestration, with more than a dose of cavernous reverb. And Walker himself was blessed with a crooner’s voice; a deep, rich baritone that he controlled with ease and inflected with melodrama at the drop of a hat. His natural gifts placed him in pop music a decade too late and as the sixties wore on it’s possible that his technique began to date him even as he was gradually creeping ahead of his time. For as you dig deeper into the songs on Scott 4, you begin to discover the elements that make the album timeless.

Right off the bat we get Ingmar Bergman’s classic existential drama, The Seventh Seal, set to music. And it’s a finger-snapper! This is unusual even for 1969, but it’s also where we get our first taste of what sets this album apart. Listen to the choir that enters in the latter half of the song. It’s dark stuff and gives you a hint that maybe Scott has stopped aiming solely at the top 40 charts. But that’s just a warm-up. The next song, On Your Own Again, clocks in at 1:48 and never ceases to surprise me, mainly because it begins with an extended prologue that you don’t realize is a prologue until the backing musicians enter and what you think is the song proper gets going. But just when you settle into where you expect the song to take you, it ends abruptly with a completely new harmony (when he sings the word “me”) before modulating back to the home key. What the hell just happened? A similar thing happens in Duchess, maybe the most conventionally pretty song on the record. We are sucked into this achingly beautiful melody that falls gently like a child sledding down a sloping hill, only to have the ride end too soon. It’s true that in pop music, less is almost always more.

Real credit needs to go to Angela Morley, whose tasteful yet slightly unsettling arrangements are the centerpiece of Scott 4. Talk about unsung heroes! Walker, who had been absorbing Gregorian chant and 20th century composers, had a perfect foil in Morley, who was able to translate his off-kilter tastes into a pop context. Later, these influences would come to dominate, but here they are under the surface, present more as tone than content. This is a major part of what makes the record timeless, because it’s that injection of a truly unique personality into the music that makes you want to get to know it. What is this guy thinking? You’ll never know, but you keep coming back thinking, “this time, I’ll figure it out”. It’s this kind of stuff that lasts.

And it’s here where people like me get exasperated because Radiohead and Wilco are not on the radio. These bands are also driven by forceful, intelligent personalities that you want to get to know. The thing we fail to realize is that the tone of these bands, like Walker on this record, is resolutely downbeat, and regular people just don’t want to hear it. Maybe YOU don’t want to hear it. I can’t blame you. But if you’re attracted to the darkness as well as, or as opposed to, the light, then this lost classic is right up your dimly lit alley.