Stretch is a curio, a collection of once-meaningful songs that haven’t survived and which, largely, will vanish into the back catalogs of history.
The Scott Walker hagiography is a narrative of three acts: early success, wilderness and a slow, torturous re-emergence with the nascent genius crystallized, his too-early glimpses of darkness and melancholy fully ripened. In effect, the story of Walker’s career is the story of how long it took audiences to catch up with him, and of how long it took the music industry to recognize what he was trying to do and then, of course, give him the means to do it. There’s a lot of truth and satisfaction to this narrative, especially as it provides the means to make sense of the difficult mid-career wilderness albums as experiments and compromises, the artist trying to smuggle as much of his Brel and Brecht under the radar of popular culture and into the hearts and minds of consumers. But, and this is no criticism at all, they’re also workmanlike, designed to be consumed, a means to an end for a craftsperson seeking to keep a roof over his head even as the royalties are drying up and the inspiration has left, perhaps for good.
With that in mind, Stretch is a strange beast now and must have been stranger then, the mood profile stuck almost entirely between melancholy and by the numbers. The benefit of hindsight allows us to see that throughout these middle period contractual obligations Walker was, whether he knew it or not, rehearsing for the remainder of his career. But, as has been well observed elsewhere, by this time, Walker had both made clear what his interests were and then, in the face of monumental opposition and popular disinterest, he abandoned those fascinations for a slightly easier and more commercially viable ride. Then even that deserted him. Stretch, suffice it to say, did not sell well.
“Sunshine,” written by Mickey Newbury, opens the album with a glorious pedal steel guitar and light-orchestral strings, and the best urban country licks that studio money could buy. The chorus offers us a glimpse of Walker at his most Roy Orbison-esque, with notes that stop short of a falsetto, while throughout the world weary shtick is kept only just at bay. From the outset, this might very well be a checked-out Walker slumming it at the company’s behest, but it’s also Walker trying on singer-personas, and the track introduces us to the instrumental palette of most of Stretch: strings, simple drum kit, pedal steel, bass guitar; Nashville light, inoffensive.
Randy Newman’s “Just One Smile,” the first of two Newman songs on Stretch, is given the light orchestral touch, the drums close and flat, the strings swelling and circling behind Walker’s warm and rounded phrasing. Pleasingly, it has an extraordinarily long fade out before “A Woman Left Lonely,” led by a bass guitar and gentle piano accompaniment before more pedal steel chords wobble into frame and locate us in the fantasy dive bar these songs seem to suggest but would never be at home in. The brief guitar solo that punctuates the middle eight is there perhaps because the genre demands it, but it’s gone before it can ruin the mood and, especially, the transition into the funky-lite of “No Easy Way Down,” with its plucked bass guitar and tightly harmonizing backing singers. “That’s How I Got to Memphis” winds up the album’s first side with more pedal steel, more urban country and Walker rolling a little haphazardly into a rhotic accent for that ‘authentic’ country feel.
“Use Me” is an unexpected delight, a break from the morose first side and, with a funky organ and some excellent analogue break-beats, a glimpse into Walker cracking a smile. This might very well be the most successful track on the album, Walker soaring into the Spartan phrases, that warm voice cracking in just the right places. “Frisco Depot” returns to the kinds of sentiment of the earliest Walker Brothers songs, laid on thick and syrupy, while “Someone Who Cared” tempts in its introduction with the kinds of cinematic strings of the first solo album before returning to safer territory. Yet even here the piano chords sit well underneath Walker’s voice which, at moments, moves like another instrument in service of the song’s affect.
The further away we get from pedal steel and cod-country, the more there are glimpses of a Scott Walker who is clearly capable of taking these songs somewhere much more interesting that this album will allow. “Someone Who Cared” could easily have sat within Walker’s first group of solo albums and, like “Use Me,” is an insight into what remained at this point of the artist within the journeyman. “Where Does Brown Begin” emerges out of “Someone Who Cared” and keeps the mood close, the same smoky late-night territory here Chet Baker might explore. Side Two finishes with Newman’s “I’ll Be Home,” more solo piano and unaccompanied voice, and proves that the best moments of the album are where Walker gets to sing and perhaps even interpret, come close to making these sometimes hackneyed songs his own.
Stretch is a curio, a collection of once-meaningful songs that haven’t survived and which, largely, will vanish into the back catalogs of history. Yet, for all of that, there are moments where Walker’s talent cannot be restrained by circumstance and where, within a couple of the tracks at least, there he is, the warm vibrato soaring, the voice trembling and cracking. What’s most pleasing about it is that it could so easily have been the final moment, the failed last album of a flailing career after which he’d have walked away forever. And yet for all of the wilderness Walker had so far endured and would continue to endure, it didn’t end here.