’Til the Band Comes In might’ve been a late-career masterpiece had it been recorded by Paul Anka or Tony Bennett.
While researching cheeky disappointments to put in his song “Bad Cover Version,” from Pulp’s swansong We Love Life, Jarvis Cocker included “the second half of ’Til the Band Comes In” alongside such anathema as the Rolling Stones’ ‘80s work and the episodes of Tom & Jerry where the animals talk. Gutsy given that that song was produced by Scott Walker, who either didn’t hear the lyric or – more likely – agreed wholeheartedly with it.
The five covers tacked on the end of Walker’s first album of the ‘70s were a record label decision, something that would increasingly define the singer’s career in that decade as he grinned his way through hacky covers and unconvincing cowboy ballads. But they’re not as bad as Cocker makes them sound, in part because they’re perfectly passable but mostly because the first half is perfectly passable as well. Most of the originals are leftovers from a planned song cycle about the tenants of an apartment complex, apparently co-written with his manager Ady Semel, and they conjure the same lamp-lit urban melancholy as Frank Sinatra’s best records, if not the bravery and emotional depth of Walker’s 1967-1969 self-titled tetralogy.
The thing about ’Til the Band Comes In is it’s defined by its peers. It’s nearly impossible to take on its own terms, and your opinion of it depends on whether or not you can divorce it from its surroundings. Along with 1984’s Climate of Hunter, it’s one of two Walker albums that don’t fit neatly within the popular narrative of his career – former teen idol makes amazingly mature baroque-pop albums, descends into label hell, emerges in middle age as a fierce avant-gardist.
The best song here, appropriately enough, is an outlier – not a hacky cover, but certainly not a song about someone who lives in a tenement. “Thanks for Chicago Mr. James” is a sweeping, conflicted letter from a country boy to his sugar daddy. Knowing Walker, he probably chose the subject because of its potential for provocation, but once we know what it’s about what stands out is its sweetness. The protagonist is sincerely grateful to Mr. James for lifting him out of a dead-end redneck life and into the “gray and gold” of the city. But daddy “needed more than the smile I wore,” so he must go. It’s one of the best gay love songs ever written by a straight man and one of the few songs where Walker writes about sex among men in a non-abject way.
Aside from “Mr. James” (mirrored by a cover of Kenny Rogers’ “Reuben James,” also about a young boy adopted by an older social outcast), ’Til the Band Comes In is inessential Walker. “Long About Now” is great not because of Walker but because of Israeli singer Esther Ofarim, another Semel client. “Joe” and “Time Operator” don’t do anything “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg,” Walker’s definitive portrait of late-night sleaze, doesn’t do better. “Jean the Machine” tells a funny story but is narratively inconsistent (he doesn’t know what happened to her, but he’s also the drummer in her band?). There’s apparently a war going on throughout the “plot,” but it’s only mentioned, not explored in the searing detail of Scott 4’s brutal “Hero of the War.”
But again, these are comparisons to Walker’s best work, and ’Til the Band Comes In might’ve been a late-career masterpiece had it been recorded by Paul Anka or Tony Bennett. There’s no canon consensus on whether or not this is a good album. It was reviewed twice by Pitchfork, once by a critic who liked it and again by one who didn’t (“[It] has its defenders,” Mike Powell made clear; “I am not one of them, and for what it’s worth, neither was Walker.”) Usually when artists make albums this divisive, it’s because they they take tremendous risks. It says volumes about Walker’s talent that ’Til the Band Comes In is so polarizing precisely because it doesn’t.