Distills all of Walker’s wonderful excess into a bleak, digestible and sinister package.
With a voice as iconic as Scott Walker, an instrumental entry in his discography is often met (whether deservedly or not) with a bit of a shrug. Still, at least Walker’s choice of movies isn’t at odds with his usual narrative focus—there’s probably nothing more Walker-esque than a Leos Carax production, who’s Pola X was the first of Walker’s filmic endeavors. Childhood of a Leader, the second of three films which Walker produced a score for, follows suit. The film is an adaptation of Jean Paul Sartre’s short story of the same name, and follows a future fascist military leader through his German youth directly surrounded by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. This simple plot summary (though lacking Scott’s characteristic poetics) doesn’t stray too far from a number of Walker’s character studies from 2006’s The Drift.
Similar narrative interests aside, Walker is an apt composer and musician to accompany a film with this bleak of a premise. His last solo album, 2012’s Bisch Bosch, was one of his most instrumentally colorful releases. It was also one of his most densely structured releases, constantly changing up its wild arrangements in order to follow Walker’s labyrinthine stories. On Childhood of a Leader, the same level of careful tone and image painting appears. At the most extreme, “Printing Press” is a bludgeoning minute of industrial clicks, distorted guitar and electronic noise bursts. If it’s less orchestral-driven soundscape feels at odds with the lush string arrangements on most of the album’s tracks, it more than justifies its presence with its all-encompassing atmosphere and vivid imagery.
More than just in these moments of one-to-one sound-image pairings, Childhood of a Leader embodies, solely through music, a sense of militarism—the score is full of sharp, dissonant string attacks and battery-like percussion hits. Even in the moments where the tone is more muted and the arrangements more spacious (as on the gloomy, horn-led “Versailles”), the music’s tense dissonance gives of a sense of constant unease. The opening overture immediately sets up an air of intensity with its low strings chug pitting against shrill, shrieking violin melodies. The track is almost a retroactive through-line between the Second Viennese School and early trash metal, laying bare the entire score’s sonically confrontational tone.
There are other passages, albeit somewhat rare and fleeting, where Walker turns away from darkness, recalling the profound brightness of the string writing on “Farmer in the City” or Scott 3. In these moments, as with the violin harmonics on “RUN” and “Cutting Flowers,” or the gorgeous, synth-led closer “New Dawn,” Walker allows small strands of light to break through. The respite is often short-lived, as the shine of “Cutting Flowers” is quickly undercut by a particularly dissonant take on the four-note motif that runs throughout most of the score. To top it all off, this track is then followed by “Boy, Mirror, Car Arriving,” one of the most martial and thickly layered cuts to appear since the overture.
A majority of these compositions fit neatly within the 30–90 second range, only occasionally offering more than the introduction of a theme and a strange left-turn of a development. Within these tiny instrumental miniatures, though, Walker manages to show off his supreme textural skills. Childhood of a Leader is a strong entry into Walker’s short catalog of instrumental works for performance. Even without his defining vocals or an immediate visual aid, the score bleeds morally corrupt melodrama. By this point in his life, Walker had solidified and synergized his compositional voice. This 30-minute score doesn’t expand and ooze like some of the studio albums, but it distills all of Walker’s wonderful excess into a bleak, digestible and sinister package.