By Peter Valelly
For whatever reason, I’ve never understood the appeal of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and the like. Chronologically speaking, I see the start of pop at the moment where blues, country, and jazz combusted into rock and R&B. But the language of popular song-everything from its chord progressions and time signatures to its lyrical preoccupations-was solidified in the genres of traditional pop decades before “pop” as I understand it started. This is just one of many willed distastes that I harbor-along with everyone else, for that matter. For example, I also can’t imagine having a reaction to nearly any piece of classical music other than staring blankly into space and turning it off almost immediately. Unlike the kind of hatred one develops for a particularly odious band, this sort of indifference seems to make up a system of music taste checks and balances. It’s nothing personal towards the genres in question-we music nerds simply need to ignore them in order not to go crazy. But occasionally, a mutant strain of these peripheral genres catches my ear. This is what happened with Scott Walker. Recently adored for disturbing, experimental, entirely non-pop records like 2006’s “The Drift” and 1994’s “Tilt,” California-born Walker first came to prominence in the 1960s pop group the Walker Brothers, who were wildly successful in the UK but had no such luck in the US. Embarking on a solo career, Walker followed in the lineage of the sort of classic pop croonery towards which I just announced my apathy. Considered by some critics and record collectors to be the greatest pop singer of all time, Walker pushed his deep, sonorous voice to its starkly emotional limit, his sound growing darker with each album. This stretch of his career culminated in his fourth solo record, “Scott 4.” The first album on which Walker wrote all of his own lyrics, “Scott 4” was released in 1969 and, unlike all of his previous albums, completely failed to chart in the UK, probably due to its esoteric content. Largely eschewing the straightforward love songs which had made him famous in the Walker Brothers, Walker rolls out a selection of songs whose topics include Soviet death camps, maimed war heroes, and Ingmar Bergman’s existential cinema classic, “The Seventh Seal.” At first, I found “Scott 4” drab, depressing and rhythmically vacant. Slowly, however, I found myself warming to its grim take on orchestral pop. The most peculiar and instantly remarkable track is the sinister “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime.” Like most songs on the album, the lyrics are unintelligible as a whole but yield bursts of inspired imagery. “He’d like another name/ the one he’s got’s a curse/ these people cried,” Walker sings, describing a young soldier. The soaring timbre of Walker’s voice, coupled with his commanding range, conveys a gripping sense of horror and wonder that stretches, like his lyrics, beyond the traditional possibilities of pop. “The World’s Strongest Man,” the album’s highlight, is one of its few upbeat tracks, its string surges and loping rhythm distracting from the gravitas of Walker’s typically overwrought vocal. “I came back here to replace your place/ in my life,” he sings quietly as the song starts. The chorus erupts, equal parts naked emotion and cryptic allusion: “And didn’t you know/ that I’m not the world’s strongest man?/ When it comes to you/ and your world I’m lost/ Can’t you see the towers of mine?/ They could shine like a dime/ Take me back again/ To your warm design.” The song fades out adorned with Walker’s wordless vocal melody and ringing bells. “Duchess” is the closest thing the album has to a conventional love song. A yearning Walker drifts in with the impressionistic opening couplet: “It’s your bicycle bells/ and your Rembrandt swells.” The mid-tempo song winds down after the final chorus with a mysterious confession, as Walker sings “I’m lying/ She’s crying.” The short, almost jubilant folk number “Hero of the War,” meanwhile, is built around a light guitar shuffle and an infectious, peculiarly uplifting melody from Walker. Walker’s climactic turn of phrase, however, furnishes one of the album’s strangest, darkest, and most jarring moments, as he blurts, “Feeling empty, it’s the emptiness of heroes like your son/ and what made him trade his mother for a gun,” followed by perplexingly energetic scatting. “Scott 4” is fraught with pop conventions, gorgeous vocals, and a lyrical fixation on ennui and agony. Its spot in the pop canon is rare-beloved by pop cognoscenti, the album has failed to enjoy nearly any measure of popular influence or cultural revival. Of course, it’s hard to imagine where else Walker’s sublime pop existentialism might have gone. A true genre of one, Walker’s sound is one whose mysteries and intricacies remain after dozens and dozens of listens.