The singular vocalist Scott Walker has died at age 76, his record label, 4AD, announced today. It's somewhat eerie that his passing—which occurred on March 22—comes about a month after Talk Talk singer Mark Hollis's, as they both had similar career trajectories and uncompromising creative visions.
Born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, Scott Walker experienced phenomenal commercial success in the UK as a member of the Walker Brothers, who were pretty much the '60s equivalent of a boy band. They scored hits such as "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," "Make It Easy on Yourself," and "My Ship Is Coming In," peddling an endearing brand of pop that balanced the breezy and the brooding with a light hand, not unlike what contemporary Lee Hazlewood was doing. However, Scott's songs on the group's 1978 swan song, Nite Flights, hinted at the singer's more experimental future releases—especially "The Electrician."
Exhausted by the pace and hollowness of pop-star life, Scott went solo in 1967 and released four albums that made him a different sort of star—a cult icon revered by people who crave lyrics of profound literacy and powerful, complicated emotions, as well as music of orchestral, continental sophistication. Most crucially, though, Walker further honed his voice, an instrument of feathery gravity that could convey soaring elation or chthonic cynicism with unimpeachable conviction.
My favorite song from this quartet of trenchant troubadourism is "Get Behind Me," a delicate acoustic-guitar ballad whose cryptic lyrics seem to be about the protagonist's struggle to overcome sinister (Satanic?) forces. The song blossoms into a psych-pop sunburst that makes you believe, against great odds, that anything is possible—thanks in part to legendary session musician Herbie Flowers's ascending, corkscrewing bass line.
(I'm going to gloss over Walker's mid-'70s LPs of covers-heavy, MOR pop because I've not heard them and they remain—from what I've heard from respected observers—justifiably out of print and not worth the effort. Maybe at some point I'll get motivated to hear these alleged aberrations and be blown away, but that seems unlikely.)
After a long hiatus, Walker returned with 1984's Climate of Hunter, an elusive collection of art songs that baffled many upon its release and featured an odd assemblage of guest musicians: Ray Russell, Mark Knopfler, Evan Parker, Billy Ocean, and others. After another even longer hiatus, Walker resurfaced with 1995's Tilt, released in the US on that bastion of indie-rock perversity, Drag City. It's doubtful anybody saw that coming. Even stranger was the music, a tar-black display of chamber-orchestra concrète. The songs here emit a distorted beauty that really clicks on the 11th listen; the "The Cockfighter" even forges a shocking bolt of catastrophic industrial techno.
Walker gravitated to the vaunted British label 4AD for 2006's The Drift, 2012's Bish Bosch (2012), and Soused, a 2014 collaboration with drone-doom-metal titans Sunn O))). This unexpected link-up works better than the similar aging legend/heavy-metal-god pairing of Lou Reed and Metallica, Lulu. These late-career works launched Walker's aesthetic into even more extreme realms of abstraction and heaviness.
The transformations of Scott Walker's career were unusual, to say the least. He set the bar high for artists doing exactly what they want and in their own time frame. Against prevailing music-history trends, Walker became more adventurous and uncompromising as he got older. His was pretty much an exemplary artistic path, and it yielded enough great music to engross a dedicated listener for a lifetime.
Former Seattle producer/musician Randall Dunn weighed in on Facebook with a beautiful eulogy.
Scott Walker's music made me wanna make better records. Be more fearless with sound. It saved my life at some of my darkest hours and made me feel love in the realest way through the turn of an amazing lyric. The worlds he created will deeply always resonate with me every time I sit and make music. He was an amazing poet, conceptualist, producer, and musician. We are losing some of the last great sources of magic these days and today I feel this one as if it was family and it hurts. Rest in peace Scott Walker.
For more insight into the complex canon and character of Scott Walker, check out Stephen Kijak's 2006 documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (executive produced by superfan David Bowie).
So very sad to hear that Scott Walker has passed away, he was a huge influence on Radiohead and myself, showing me how i could use my voice and words. Met him once at Meltdown, such a kind gentle outsider. He will be very missed. https://t.co/v33Ey91hbn
— Thom Yorke (@thomyorke) March 25, 2019