On Scott Walker

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Here in Hamilton, Ohio, Scott Walker is a prophet without honor. While our fair city can boast at least one other great artist–the classic children’s book author and illustrator Robert McCloskey–among its most famous sons and daughters, Hamilton possesses no historical marker to commemorate Walker’s birth here, nor does it feature a museum dedicated to his life and work; there are no bronze sculptures depicting his characters, no elementary schools named in his honor. (McCloskey got every single one of these but the school name. How cool would it be, though, if there was a Scott Walker Elementary School?)

But there should be. Even though Walker–born Noel Scott Engel in 1943–only lived here for the first few years of his peripatetic existence, one would think that we might show a little more civic pride for having produced one of the greatest musical talents of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Recently, I’ve grown interested in the psychogeographical connections between art and landscape. When I listen to Walker’s music, I often wonder what he would make of Hamilton circa 2012, the year when he released his most recent album, Bish Bosch. It is, to be sure, a strange and contradictory place, one where our future aspirations coexist uneasily with our past and present realities. Once a major center of manufacturing along the Great Miami River with a rich historical heritage, Hamilton sought to reverse its post-industrial decline by reinventing itself in the new century as a patron of arts and culture. It is officially designated by the state of Ohio as the “City of Sculpture,” thanks in no small part to our world-class sculpture park and museum at Pyramid Hill. While on a recent walking tour of the city’s downtown revitalization project, I was genuinely impressed by the effort that the civic group CHAPS (Citizens for Historic and Preservation Services) has undertaken to make the city a more liveable place both aesthetically and economically, such as converting old, disused buildings into a school for the arts or loft apartments / studios for artists. They have abundantly demonstrated that modernization and preservation are not necessarily in opposition. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ve only managed to beautify the superstructure while the base on which it rests remains mostly the same–after all, once one drives away from the shiny new-old surfaces and structures downtown, away from the colorful public art projects and the ornate historic districts, the suburbs of our city are just like nearly every other rust-belt suburb in the Midwest. At times it can be pretty grim.

(The most grotesque example of public art in Hamilton is the bronze statue of George W. Bush in front of the public high school where the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law. I swear I am not making this up. The sculpture was erected while Bush was still in office, and it features the president standing at a podium in front of a rapt audience, with the district superintendent gazing up at him adoringly. It’s a magnificent example of Stalinist kitsch with a peculiarly American twist; Walker would surely find it fascinating.)

In Hamilton, the past and present are jumbled together: the decaying bones of the old push through the skin of the new. At dusk, a sculpture might fibrillate in the viewer’s mind between a monumental work of art and the pieces of rusted metal from which it is constructed; the most pessimistic among us might claim that we always-already live among the ruins of our bleak futurity.

At first glance, Walker, too, appears to be a paragon of pure reinvention, but even Walker’s most radical gestures have always been immanent within his work. Beginning as a member of the pop group The Walker Brothers (which had many hits in the UK, where he has lived since 1965), Walker eventually broke away with a stunning solo career, one influenced by European existentialists and auteurs like Jacques Brel. Walker’s skills as a narrative singer-songwriter grew with each new release, culminating with the classic 1969 album Scott 4, his first record to feature all-original songs. He had a lyrical aptitude for portraying mundane, tragicomic characters with striking naturalistic imagery, but the increasing dissonance that crept into Walker’s backing music began to mirror the dissonance between his romantic style and his dark subject matter. The commercial failure of Scott 4 led him to become even more private and reclusive, falling silent for nearly a decade save for sporadic Walker Brothers reunions and albums of cover versions and country songs.

To listen to the infrequent but extraordinary sequence of albums he has released since 1978–Nite Flights, Climate of Hunter, Tilt, The Drift, and Bish Bosch–is to bear witness to the most radical, unparalleled transformation in the history of modern music, like watching a night-black moth emerging from its cocoon. Walker’s rich, expressive baritone, which once floated above a sea of lush orchestration, becomes more operatic and fractured; the arrangements are spare and jagged, and when there are strings, they’re often hair-raising in their atonality. The ominous silences and the vertiginous shifts in dynamics suit the content of Walker’s lyrics, which have been honed to haunting, minimalist perfection. A typical song might deal with the execution of a dictator and his mistress, a deadly plague spreading around the globe, or torture and wartime violence under a totalitarian regime.

To my view, Walker’s two most recent albums constitute his supreme artistic achievement. (They are also among the most spacious and best-produced records I’ve ever heard.) The Drift is his most avant-garde and harrowing–there are several moments that are genuinely terrifying, like the infamous sound effects of a man punching a side of pork, samples of a braying donkey, or Walker’s intensely unsettling Daffy Duck impersonation–but there is enough beauty here to compensate for all of the darkness. Bish Bosch, however, is more accessible than its predecessor; it’s a mutated rock record with pummeling percussion, angular, distorted guitar, and some of Walker’s wittiest, most blackly comic lyrics. The breadth and depth of his erudition never fails to astonish–who else could write a twenty-two minute song that reimagines Zercon, a deformed dwarf who served as a court jester for Attila the Hun, as a flagpole sitter and insult comic tossing out desperate, hysterical one-liners as he looks down upon human history from increasingly distant vantage points until he finally merges with the coldest object in the known universe, a brown dwarf star? Every second of Walker’s work seems to burst with new musical and lyrical ideas.

I found myself oddly touched when Walker mentioned in a recent interview that he enjoyed listening to one of my other favorite musical artists, Radiohead. That band’s lead singer, Thom Yorke, is an avowed fan of Scott Walker’s work (like David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, and many other musicians committed to artistic progression); Yorke views Walker as an inspiration because he walked away from popularity to make his own utterly unique and idiosyncratic art. That Walker in turn recognized a kindred spirit in Radiohead, like a handshake across time, demonstrates that Walker never looks back–as he once sang, he has lived an artistic life dedicated to the principle of “no regrets.”

Like Hamilton, OH, the city that he once briefly called home, Scott Walker is continually challenging himself and reimagining his art. A consummate expatriate, he knows that there always comes a time to walk away from one’s past and amble into a dark, uncertain future. For the luckiest such travelers, like Walker himself, there is sublime work to be made, aesthetic beauty to be found among the ruins.

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