Scott Walker’s solo debut is both the logical extension of his work with the Walker Brothers and a clear statement of intent for the artistic vision that too rarely showed itself in the group.
Scott Walker’s solo debut is both the logical extension of his work with the Walker Brothers and a clear statement of intent for the artistic vision that too rarely showed itself in the group. From the moment the album opens with the Jacques Brel cover “Mathilde,” its roar of western horns and Walker’s charging vocal delivery gallop out of the staid, trendy pop of the Walker Brothers straight into baroque compositions and arch lyrical preoccupations. Walker had already spoken publicly about his admiration of Brel, and he managed to secure Mort Shuman’s translations of the singer-songwriter’s work, and his enthusiasm for the material is infectious. As the orchestral backing swells in time with Walker’s increasingly feverish delivery as he careens through lines like “My heart, I don’t want you to say/ She’s lovelier than when she went away.” The best covers convey something of the recording artist’s own personality and perspective in their vision of someone else’s work, but it’s rare to hear a musician so forcefully establish, not confirm, his true self with a cover.
Walker adapts two other Brel songs for the album. “My Death” is a haunting number that blends baroque harpsichord with shimmering, contemporary guitar to create a warped mirror of prevailing hippie attitudes. Not unlike the material on the first Velvet Underground album, the track seeps into the death drive beneath hippie innocence that would eventually rear its head. Though where Reed and company anticipated the coming breakdown with strung-out schadenfreude, Walker luxuriates giddily in the interplay of Thanatos and Eros. Closer “Amsterdam” sounds almost hyperbolically French, rolling out with lethargic accordion ready for a night walking the banks of the Seine. The drunken story-song compartmentalizes the operatic tragedy of Walker’s voice, converting it from a grandiose gothic howl to a softer tone of regret. At least, that’s the way things are before the song erupts in the home stretch, mimicking the rally of the drunken sailor as he comes to and puffs out his chest, heading out into the night with pride. With these three songs alone, Walker sounds surer of himself than he ever did with a group.
Most of the rest of the album also consists of covers. Barry Mann’s “Angelica” is brassy and cheesy in its instrumentation, but Walker’s cooing, Sinatra-esque vocals slice through the brightness like a knife. His sonorous baritone makes for such a sharp contrast to much of the music throughout the album; on “The Lady from Baltimore,” a bizarrely pastoral country backing of twanging guitar and airy flute is given pathos by Walker’s somber delivery. “The Big Hurt,” already a novelty hit for Toni Fisher at the end of the ‘50s, is distended here, replacing the flanged techniques with slurred horns that sound like the band forgetting their place halfway into a note.
Scott includes only three numbers actually penned by Walker, and you can hear him still coming into his own as a lyricist under the influence of Brel’s black sense of humor. “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” opens with such grotesque observations as “The only sound to tear the night/ Comes from the man upstairs/ His bloated belching figure stomps/ He may crash through the ceiling soon” and such indelible throwaways like “Her thighs are full of tales to tell.” The song’s arrangement is scarcely distinguishable from the string-heavy pre-rock pop of the covers, but already you can get a glimpse into the bleak, grimy hilarious writer Walker would become. Sonically, “Such a Small Love” gets closer to the true Walker: its moaning, dissonant organ points clearly to the man who would make records like Tilt, and his slow, deliberate delivery drags out the malice and horror of his gorgeous voice as he bears witness to glimpses of unnerving sights. Then, he chucks in a far more normal track like “Always Coming Back to You” near the end of the LP, a torch song that is tender and dejected in equal measure and proves that when he felt like it, Walker could just straight up write a lovely song.
The pieces of Walker’s solo career are not all in place on Scott. Indeed, no single LP could ever summarize his restless evolution and ever-more-daring approach to making music. But as a statement of intent, he manages to make three originals and nine covers feel as bracing a re-introduction as anything debuting on the scene in the psychedelic era in which he released this album. Defiantly out of time, Scott depicts its maker throwing off the shackles of his time in a more traditionally managed group, and his releases would grow stranger and more singular at an exponential rate from here.