Walker wasn’t covering or trying to be Brel on 4. He had matched and surpassed him.
On May 16th, 1967, Jacques Brel gave his final concert performance. He ended his storied musical career on his own terms as he pivoted into film. Two years later, Scott Walker, his most famous disciple, would also become an actor, but within his own life. With each solo album, the once bulletproof pop star lost critical and commercial traction, culminating with flop after flop and a descent into alcoholism. In the course of two years, he’d gone from a global phenomenon to a cowed and chastised puppet of his record label. And Scott 4 was Walker’s fall, a complete failure that turned the ‘70s into a slog of contractual hell. And yet. Scott 4, the pariah and catastrophe, might be the greatest album of its era and of Walker’s ecstatic career.
Our own Ian Maxton claimed that there “were two Scott Walkers.” One “the grand duke of American chanson” and the other “the weirdo.” Scott 4 was the only time he found a true balance between the two. He had fired longtime manager Maurice King who was attempting to mold Walker into a BBC-friendly Sinatra. With newfound creative freedom, he penned his first album of original compositions. Though Walker had started to produce other artists by ’67 and was writing snippets for The Walker Brothers before they dissolved, it seems impossible that this document was made by someone who’d never created a full original album. The songs here feel ancient, discovered in scrawled texts and lost hymnals. While he and confidant John Franz had previously acquiesced to the sterile, fluffy sounds his label demanded, the two of them went for full wizardry and exultation on 4. Walker was done inhabiting shag-rug lounges and stuffy studios. If Leonard Cohen sketched lonely motel rooms and Joni Mitchell blanketed whole cities, Walker traced the fine marble of cathedrals and mausoleums. All echoing in their expanse and emptiness.
“It’s Raining Today” had already cemented that Walker had both eldritch abominations crawling at the edges and an off-kilter literary bent. And he doubled down to open 4. “The Seventh Seal” distills Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film of the same name into a neat five minutes. Walker begins as a Fortinbras, arriving to the absolute destruction of plague sweeping Europe. But the perspective swings, with Walker inhabiting Max Von Sydow’s Antonius Block as he battles Death and ponders his own mortality. It’s a ballad, but barely resembles a pop hit, Walker bellowing over a Mariachi-flavored background that delivered charisma and drama. The symbolic connection between Block and Walker is undeniable. As the knight is defeated by Death, Walker was staring into his own void of addiction. When he cries “why can’t God touch me with a sign?” they speak as one.
“The Seventh Seal” begins the emotional melodrama and sets 4 as a remarkably vulnerable album. “The World’s Strongest Man” is the platonic ideal of every Dionne Warwick/Brill Building/Phil Spector torch song that Walker had been singing for years. But in the lonely, reverent confines of 4, it’s a refinement of everything good from his earlier era, admitting to radical weakness and acceptance as a sumptuous string arrangement flows behind him. The only other straightforward pop songs are the tender caress of “Duchess” and “Get Behind Me,” a sort of “Sympathy for the Devil” in miniature (the “Satan” is implied in the title). After an eerie intro, the song bursts into Walker’s most euphoric chorus since his first ever single “Take it Easy on Yourself.”
Angels, gods and demons are consistent characters on 4. Though Walker finds brief triumph in their midst on “Get Behind Me,” he mostly walks through their realms with reverence and quiet wonder. Much of Walker’s lyrics lock into the second person, addressing an invisible “you.” But Walker is referring to himself, using the detachment to either console or escape his pain. He is his only conversation partner, ephemeral beings and city streets the few outside constants to hear his murmurs. “Angels of Ashes” finds Walker in the arms of the seraphim, eerie yet benevolent. These are not Valentine cherubs; instead his rapturous lyrics see them “with wings wrapped in flame” and references the incomprehensible forms of wheels within wheels pirouetting in a different plain of existence. Here, as Walker sings to a fellow traveler (or himself), he advises “Let them burn with a fire/ All it takes to confess is a word, just a word.” Walker casts Heaven as a sanctuary of silence and eternal rest. “I can recommend angels,” he says offhandedly, leading his charge deeper into the light.
Scott 4 is byzantine, but the labyrinths Walker crafts never obscure the emotion. Much as Walker might distance himself, “Boychild” is about his own loss of innocence. With all of four harp notes echoing out with dusty reverb, Walker, with as much heartbreak as joy, reaches his younger self, trying to rekindle his love of music. But it expands into something universe spanning. A surreal, genial hymn beamed in from either 2000 BC or H.G. Wells’ furthest flung adventures.
While Walker’s admiration of Brel had him dabbling in black comedy, the grand portion of 4 couples surreality with empathy. His only scathing indictments were saved for the violent absurdity of war his native USA was merrily playing. “Hero of the War” is one of the cruelest pop songs ever. Walker inhabits the sneering, jingoistic voices of a Podunk village accosting and celebrating “Mrs. Reiley” whose son is back from the front. “Show his gun to all the children in the street/ It’s too bad he can’t shake hands or move his feet,” they cheerily sing. He reveals that Mrs. Reiley’s husband was lost in whatever the last great conflict was and openly questions the son’s motivations: “What made him leave his mother for a gun?” Few songs have ever battled the vile, bizarre drugs that are violence and war like this as they turn some into widows, others cripples and the onlookers vicarious vultures.
“The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” was less apocryphal, instead focusing on the ’68 invasion of Czechoslovakia by five Iron Curtain countries. Walker’s proclivity for barren arrangements with dusty sounds made him gravitate to the tense work of Ennio Morricone and “The Old Man’s Back Again” is the finest realization of this postmodern Spaghetti Western swagger. The bass line is filthy and menacing as Death and the ghost of Stalin become one, overlooking concentration camps and the purging of democracy. While John Lennon was clapping along to meaningless platitudes, Walker had made two of the most vicious political songs of the era.
It would be 15 years before Walker made another album that was truly him. The synth-dystopia of Climate of Hunter is utterly alien from 4 sonically but was Scott through and through. The ‘70s were a wasteland, with Walker bouncing between contractual sighs and his Kafka-esque detours with the reunited Walker Brothers. So for a decade he retired. Unlike Brel, he compromised everything. But Scott 4 compromised nothing. It’s impossible to imagine the Baroque Brit-pop of The Verve, Radiohead’s post-Pablo Honey reinvention or The National’s orchestral mope without 4. And, just a few years later, another pop star turned beautiful burnout would make his own escapist series as Bowie fled to Berlin. If 4 proves anything, it’s the shortsightedness and abject idiocy of the music industry. Walker wasn’t covering or trying to be Brel on 4. He had matched and surpassed him.