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A unique tilt

Scott Walker in 1969. (Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty Images)

A unique tilt

Scott Walker made songs like nobody else

On April 1, The New York Times published a story titled “‘Blurred Lines’ on Their Minds, Songwriters Create Nervously.” It detailed the anxiety besetting pop composers in the wake of recent plagiarism lawsuits in which courts have sided with the plaintiffs and thereby lowered the burden of proof to the point that almost any song might be actionable.  

And, despite its publication date, the story was no joke.

Of course, should the worst fears of the songwriting community prove warranted, its members can always do what Scott Walker did: write songs that sound like nothing else ever recorded.  

Walker, who died in March at age 76, did not start out as an avant-gardist or even as a songwriter but as a pop singer with a legion of teenage fans. His burnished baritone turned the mid-’60s Walker Brothers singles “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” into transatlantic smashes.  

By the time, however, of his well-received first solo album, Scott (1967), he had become enamored of the music of Jacques Brel and begun composing and crooning as if to the cabaret circuit born. “Montague Terrace (in Blue)” and Scott 2’s “Plastic Palace People” were just two signs that he might be onto something. 

There would soon be others. The social-realist lyrics and haunting strings of “It’s Raining Today,” “Rosemary,” and “Big Louise” (Scott 3) testified to his immersion in cutting-edge European cinema. By Scott 4 (1969), he was writing all of his material himself. 

But unlike his other eponymous efforts, Scott 4 failed to sell, and, except for a brief return to the British charts with the reformed Walker Brothers in 1975, the rest of his ’70s output was no exception.

It was with his contributions to the final Walker Brothers album, 1978’s Nite Flights, that the next phase of his career—one that would continue until the end of his life and transform him into one of contemporary music’s strangest anti-heroes—began to take shape. “Shut Out,” “Fat Mama Kick,” “Nite Flights,” and “The Electrician” owed more to David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy than to any strain of music with which he had previously been associated. When his next solo effort, Climate of Hunter, materialized six years later, its electronic noir soundscapes and chilling opening line, “This is how you disappear,” dashed any hopes that Walker might someday reinhabit his former personae.  

Then he disappeared.

When Walker reappeared in 1995, it was with Tilt, a record that permanently polarized what remained of his audience. Some proclaimed its brooding orchestral instrumentation, scalding industrial effects, and nightmarish stream-of-consciousness lyrics (sung by Walker in a constricted vibrato at the top of his range) the work of a genius. Others felt that they’d been the victims of an elaborate hoax or that Walker had, in defiance of Nietzsche’s famous warning, gazed so long into the abyss that the abyss had begun gazing into him. 

It was an impression that The Drift (2006), with its obsessively grim subject matter and oppressively infernal aura, only reinforced. Bish Bosch and Soused, released in 2012 and 2014 respectively, offered no relief. 

Yet, as bizarre as Walker seemed on disc, he came across as surprisingly down-to-earth in Stephen Kijak’s 2006 documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, even insisting that his work contained a sense of humor that his detractors had missed.

Or maybe they hadn’t. In fact, in considering Tilt and everything after it to be one big joke, they might’ve gotten Walker’s “humor” better than anyone else.