Scott Walker continues to stay abreast of any expectation.
The last visionary of pop’s golden age, Scott Walker continues to stay abreast of any expectation. His prior album, Soused, a collaboration with drone noisemakers Sunn O))), was inexplicably his most accessible album in decades, with Walker sounding quite at home with the avant-metal group and instructing the band on re-assembling riffs and patterns from their colossal deconstruction. If Walker’s ability to constantly sound fresh, even ahead of his time, confirms him as a 30th century man, his milieu remains firmly entrenched less in the future than the past. This attribute is clearly visible on The Childhood of a Leader, the score for Brady Corbet’s film of the same name. Based on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre, the film’s story allegorically charts the rise of fascism in Europe, and Walker’s score is at once tethered to the artistic era and warped far beyond its boundaries.
Regularly tagged as baroque pop for his threnodic baritone and the intricacy of his arrangements, Walker has only fit that label at the outset of his career. Instead, his compositions, regularly juxtaposing knotty classicalism and heady, obtuse deconstruction, verge closer to modernism. As such, he is thoroughly at home scoring a film set in the bewildering aftermath of the First World War and during the gradual ascent into the second. The opening number, the longest composition on the soundtrack, is less a warm up than a swift drop into battle, pitting various string sections against each other in a maelstrom redolent of the most savage peaks of The Rite of Spring. As more and more oppositional voices join the fray, the occasional burst of brass acts as the intrusion of some larger force that dwarfs the combatants. In five minutes, Walker packs enough musical conflict to sustain most full soundtracks.
From there, the score moves through various stages that seem less focused on matching visual cues than on traversing the 20th century through music, albeit in jagged fashion. “Village Walk” has the delicate strings of a pastoral, conjuring a folky vision of a rural area at once sheltered from the rapid changes at work on the continent and the tide of populism slowly spreading its roots out to these hamlets. On either side of that track, however, are ominous, electronically bolstered, like a “Dream Sequence” of ambient noise punctured by the guttural, basso rumbles of some digital beast. Meanwhile, “RUN” sets a cluster of violins against a buzzing wall that sounds equally like thousands of tiny voices screaming in unison or one creature’s mammoth roar.
The farther along one gets into the soundtrack, the more the initial patina of late romantic orchestration gives way to corroded time signatures and odd instrumentation that apes the sound of too-fast social and technological growth mixed with general stagnation. “Cutting Flowers” is all piercing glissandi, not grating but mournful and longing, communicating discontent and weariness. “Printing Press” rides a palm-muted, staccato electric guitar riff before the clacking mechanical mandibles of pneumatic machinery take over, briefly moving the score into the industrial realm that Walker has often plundered in his late career.
The best film scores can evoke the images of their accompanying movies; can practically make viewers relive visual memories with audio cues. But Walker’s score for The Childhood of a Leader, even when listened to in complete isolation from the film it soundtracks, does one better. It tells a story of its own. In only 30 minutes of brief tendrils of composition, Walker charts both growth and breakdown, the early, grand swell of social change gradually imploding around a single, insular perspective. By the finale, that cynical, individual voice has rejoined a reshaped collective of like-minded discontent, providing a brief précis of the film’s state thesis. Fans may initially balk at listening to this album and dismiss it as a curio given its short length and the fact that Walker merely composes. But this is a Walker album through and through, linked by conceptual continuity and unbowed innovation. If he does not sing here, the album nonetheless reverberates with his voice.