Listeners ought to be grateful that we have records like this to exhibit Walker’s wide-ranging talents.
In the big picture of Scott Walker’s career, from the attempted reverse-British Invasion of early Walker Brothers to his solo chanson period and finally his late avant-garde masterpieces, the ‘70s are often considered a lost decade. Filled with albums that Walker himself later disavowed for lacking artistic merit and culminating in the reunion of The Walker Brothers, it is difficult to disagree. But the completist mindset is a funny thing. When you start devouring an artist’s body of work and you reach a period like this, you begin searching for some sign of what drew you to the artist in the first place. This is the line of thinking that praises and reclaims albums like Bob Dylan’s Infidels or David Bowie’s Earthling as great works.
Lines, however, does not merit a radical revisionist take. On The Walker Brothers penultimate album as a group, despite the late-70s soft-rock vibe and the sea of covers that make up its track list, there are traces of what makes Walker a fascinating artist. The title track, for instance, is a more than able demonstration of his vocals. The arrangement doesn’t swallow him, but still offers plenty of swelling strings. That swell in the chorus foreshadows Walker’s own song “The Electrician,” which would appear on the next (and last) Walker Brothers album. The title track is dramatic and, frankly, moving. If one were to compile Walker’s best songs, this would be included. Even if it feels a touch formulaic, it’s an exemplar of the formula.
The songs on Lines that fit into this vein – the melancholic, even saccharine pop that was in deep twilight by 1976 – mostly work, though after a while it begins to seem like the participants are on autopilot. “Lines,” “Taking it All in Stride,” “We’re All Alone” and “Many Rivers to Cross” all begin with a few bars of piano before introducing vocals, sometimes with a bass guitar accompaniment. “Inside of You” makes the contextually radical choice of kicking off with vocals and piano. Of these songs, the ones fronted by Scott Walker fare best. In addition to the title track, “Many Rivers to Cross” is a stand-out. The oft-covered Jimmy Cliff song is played more regretful than defiant by The Walker Brothers. The gospel choir is a nice touch, though the ripping guitar solo in the middle is questionable.
John Walker’s vocals are ill-suited to this kind of balladry, so he takes lead on the peppier numbers. The two most upbeat tracks are the Randy Newman-penned “Have You Seen My Baby” and John Walker’s own “First Day” – the only track written by one of the “brothers,” and even then, under a pseudonym. Neither of these make much sense in either sequencing or sound in the context of the album. “Have You Seen My Baby” is a bluesy shuffle that breaks for a honking sax solo. “First Day” sounds like Bob Weir singing one of Lou Reed’s jauntier compositions – and while this is often lazy shorthand for describing a sound, it really is uncanny how much it sounds like this bizarre, incongruous combination. Switching it up a bit, this song is interrupted by a looping sax solo.
There are country shades to this record as well. The aforementioned John-fronted “Taking it All in Stride” is backed by an upscale saloon piano and a too-bright acoustic guitar. John’s blues-inflected delivery gives it a rougher edge than Scott’s ballads, to uneven effect. “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” begins with swirling fiddles before Scott’s baritone introduces itself accompanied by a thumping bass line. If you listen hard, you may even detect a slight, affected twang from Scott. Closers “Hard to Be Friends” and “Dreaming as One” return to the earlier balladry, both beginning with lightly plucked acoustic guitar. While the former follows the standard formula of quiet verses and swelling choruses – all while the arrangement gets bigger – the latter has a refreshing minimalism. The repeating guitar line is bolstered by bass played with a light touch. John offers some quiet, well-placed harmonies. It ends the album on a high note, despite being its most low-key song.
Lines isn’t an awful record. With its share of pleasures, it’s not a disaster, but it is a mess, albeit a mostly competent one. The songs are well-executed even when they are forgettable. Thankfully, we live in a reality where Scott Walker did not devote his entire career to these tepid soft-rock efforts at commercial success. But that doesn’t mean we should toss Lines into the memory hole. Listeners ought to be grateful that we have records like this to exhibit Walker’s wide-ranging talents. Few artists have been capable of the depth and breadth he exhibited over his career, and there is a place to appreciate even minor efforts like this one.