Scott 3 was the first of Walker’s solo records comprised mostly of original compositions.
There were two Scott Walkers. There was Walker the crooner, the grand duke of American chanson. The man who brought Jacques Brel to the English-speaking world. Then there was Walker the weirdo, the perverse and twisted master of that same chanson tradition, but drug through a dungeon of unspeakable terrors. Like Jekyll and Hyde, as Walker’s career progressed, he gradually allowed the latter persona to take over and roam the streets all night. To keep the analogy going, Scott 3 is like the scene in the novel when Jekyll first transforms himself.
Album-opener “It’s Raining Today” has a sense of foreboding unlike anything in Walker’s catalog up to that point. The atonal strings that begin the record are a harbinger of the rest of Walker’s career even if his more gothic proclivities did not come to full fruition until its third decade. A whole universe of sound opens up in the suspension of those five or six seconds before a chime sounds and Walker’s voice – smooth and deep like a dense fog – descends on the track. “It’s Raining Today” remains, 50 years later, one of the greatest achievements of Walker’s musical output. A dense, tricky work of sustained atmosphere, it melds a dripping baseline, an understated acoustic guitar, the droning strings and, yes, even those schmaltzy chimes into a haunting, romantic ballad. Walker’s voice is a marvel – taking center stage amid orchestral swirls during the bridge – but it’s his poetically observed lyrics that he puts that voice in service of that make the song a masterwork. Their deceptive simplicity – the repeated refrain of the title – gives way to a dense pattern of internal rhyme and alliteration, like on the first line of the bridge: “I’ve hung around too long/ Listening to the old landlady’s hard-luck stories.” The song freezes on the imagistic metaphor, “The street corner girl’s/ A cold, trembling leaf” before Walker returns to the refrain and holds the last note as the track begins to fade out.
Scott 3 was the first of Walker’s solo records comprised mostly of original compositions. While in the U.S., Walker’s music at the time might have been superficially grouped with crooners or lounge singers, Brel’s influence is strong here. Walker’s lyrics are romantic, but never sentimental. There is a darkness – either sonically or lyrically – at the core of the songs that would have made up the first side of the LP. “Copenhagen” strikes a longing, almost hopeful, note, before ending with a ghostly circus waltz. “Rosemary” moves fluidly from dream to nightmare. The characters in Walker’s songs are down on their luck. They remember better times and places – but these reveries remain in the past never to return. Of the titular “Big Louise,” Walker sings that she is “a haunted house” whose “windows are broken.” On “Two Ragged Soldiers,” Walker sings of two men who, faced with the horror of war and its aftermath, have fantasy as their only escape.
In the midst of all this melancholy, “We Came Through” stands out at first for its rousing percussion and soaring vocals. Horn blasts celebrate “the men who died for freedom’s sake.” The song seems to defy the grim viewpoint of the rest of the record, but then the lyrics twist as Walker sings, “We won’t dream, for they don’t come true for us/ Not anymore.” He mourns Che Guevara and Martin Luther King, Jr. – both killed in within the two years preceding the album’s release – saying of the latter his “predictions fade from view.” As Walker strikes up the chorus again, the declaration “we came through” falls with grim irony. Yes, we have survived while these others are dead, but whose fate is the enviable one?
The second side of the LP opens with what, to many, may be the most recognizable Scott Walker song: “30 Century Man.” Lyrically, the song is suffused with the same gothic modernism as the rest of the album. Sonically, the track is a radical departure. Ditching orchestration, the stereo mix banishes the lone acoustic guitar to one ear and Walker’s nimble growl to the other. The track is as cutting edge as anything the Beatles were putting out in the late ‘60s, but surrounded as it is by Walker’s surrealist lounge act, it feels downright avant-garde.
The other two Walker compositions on the back half of the record return to the motifs – and sonic palette – of the first half, but the album ends with three Jacques Brel covers. This is appropriate given the deep admiration Walker had for Brel’s music and the debt that Scott 3 in particular owes to the French singer. Closing with a rendition of Brel’s most popular work, “Ne me quitte pas” – rendered here in poet Rod McKuen’s translation as “If You Go Away” – is a bold move, but, in the context of Walker’s solo career, it feels like a respectful bow to the master, coming at a moment when the student had begun to surpass him.