We Had It All was the last solo album Walker would make in hopes of a hit.
The songs on Billy Joe Shaver’s 1973 album Old Five and Dimers Like Me comprise one of the great bodies of work in country. Through Waylon Jennings’ interpretations on Honky Tonk Heroes later that year, they helped spark the outlaw movement. Then there’s Scott Walker’s We Had It All from 1974. Do we need to hear these songs third-hand? This is one of the more warmly received of Walker’s ‘70s potboilers, perhaps because the concept of Walker singing outlaw country is kind of interesting but more likely because most of its champions haven’t heard Honky Tonk Heroes.
It’s hard to picture this Bergman-watching vampire of the avant-garde as the kind of shit-kicking characters Shaver portrayed. To his credit Walker at least ended up with the Shaver songs best-suited to his voice. “Ride Me Down Easy” lets Walker indulge the tremulous low range of his voice, and maybe he related to “Old Five and Dimers” as a sad man who was drinking a lot (“Good luck and fast bucks are few and far between”). Less fortunate is his take on “Black Rose,” peppered with some of the most unconvincing “lord”’s this side of a Mumford & Sons Pandora. His cadences are inconsistent between the two choruses, perhaps because he didn’t give much of a shit. He sounds like one of those kids in the West Side Story movie, snapping their fingers and hoping we’ll believe they’re in a gang. It’s awful.
Outlaw might’ve been cool in 1974, but We Had It All might’ve turned out better had it been made a few years earlier, when the spit-shined sound of Glen Campbell and his peers defined the genre. Campbell and Walker have a bit in common; “Wichita Lineman” has the kind of existential sweep Walker loves. There is a Campbell song here, the appallingly mean “You’re Young and You’ll Forget,” but it makes a weaker case for Walker as a countrypolitan star than “The House Song,” sourced from Peter, Paul and Mary, which has a dimly lit, almost gothic pall similar to his late-‘60s self-titled tetralogy. Or “Sundown,” which is even nastier than “You’re Young” but at least sounds like its title, all reds and golds conjured by the rich string shading of producer Del Newman.
“We Had It All” is the one song from Honky Tonk Heroes not written by Shaver. On the Jennings album it was a treacly outlier, but here it’s a highlight. Walker’s voice is made of wine, not of whiskey, and the best songs here understand that. When We Had It All works, it’s for the same reasons his other ‘70s covers albums occasionally catch fire: he’s a really good singer, and there aren’t many sounds more satisfying than his low vibrato undulating over an insinuating string section. Schmaltz looks good on him, but obviously his own songs look best.We Had It All was the last solo album Walker would make in hopes of a hit. A few years later,
he’d emerge with other plans.