Monday, November 23, 2009

November 23: Scott Walker, "Tilt"

Artist: Scott Walker
Album: Tilt
Year: 1995
Label: Drag City

In most cases, one of the easiest ways to end a career is when an artist or band takes too long in between album releases. A majority of the time, if too much time has elapsed between releases, the face of popular music has changed significantly or, to put it quite simply, the artist has been forgotten. While in this case, many artists can still make a decent living rehashing their "fifteen minutes" for a handful of years, even these most dedicated fans eventually fade away. If one inspects this trend, one will find that anything beyond two full years without a new album (or a tour), and the artists' sales and popularity are significantly decreased. However, there is one very strange case where all of these rules (aside from commercial success) seemed to disappear. Having found success as part of The Walker Brothers in the late 1960's, Scott Walker released albums as a solo artist as well as with The Walker Brothers until 1984. His early records garnered him a fair amount of success, with a few singles propelling the early albums into the top twenty five in the U.K. Then, Walker quite literally disappeared for more then a decade, releasing no new material and being all but forgotten by music fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Then, in 1995, Scott Walker returned with one of the most stunning and extraordinarily dark musical works ever released, the haunting and amazingly original musical masterpiece, Tilt.

The fact that nearly all of Walkers' success, whether with The Walker Brothers or as a solo artist is quite ironic considering the fact that he was born in southern Ohio. His early career was that of a fantastic singer who did all he could to capitalize on the "British Invasion," and the irony of his true birthplace became even stronger. However, one cannot deny the brilliance of the singles he created as part of The Walker Brothers (they were not brothers), and the success that he achieved as a solo artist whilst simultaneously being completely ignored in his homeland is nothing short of tragic. Walker is without question one of the most original and innovative musicians that the U.S. has ever birthed, and the manner in which he approaches each song is unlike that of any other performer in history. His solo compositions are sonic masterpieces, with dark, sparse instrumentation underlying his deep, sorrowful singing. At times, the music is almost operatic in sound, and at other times, it teems with a mood of pure evil and perfectly encapsulates everything that "goth" artists dream of creating. The stunning orchestrations that he creates has led him to work with countless artists, creating music with the likes of Nick Cave and Pulp. Cementing his spot as one of the most important figures in music, along with super-producer Phil Spector and Brian Eno, Walker is the only other recipient to ever be given Q Magazine's award for "contributions to music." On Tilt, Walker proves his worth of such an honor, as the album represents one of the few modern musical recordings that was done entirely live in the studio, and none of the songs received any post-recording enhancements or alterations.

The music that Scott Walker presents on Tilt is dark, moody, and sparse like nothing else one will ever experience anywhere else in music. The textures are extremely deep, and much like a good blues song, the spots where the music is absent is just as important and impactful as where music is present. While Walker is backed by more than twenty different musicians throughout the nearly hour-long run-time, there is a core of four players who are present on every song. Guitarist David Rhodes is without question best known for spending a majority of the past three decades collaborating with and playing alongside Peter Gabriel. His work with Walker is just as moving and original, and one can think of few other guitarists who can so perfectly fulfill Walker's musical desires. With winding and wailing textures, Rhodes proves his truly brilliant and amazingly innovative techniques, and it is a guitar sound like nothing else ever heard. Having also spent time with Gabriel, as well as backing everyone from Roberta Flack to Annie Lennox, session-bassist extraordinaire John Giblin is simply perfect throughout Tilt. Whether playing pulsing, deep rhythms or bringing an overwhelming sense of doom to a handful of tracks, Giblin is absolutely astonishing on the album, and none of his other works pales in comparison. The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Ian Thomas proves to be a true genius on percussion. Rarely playing anything resembling "formal" drumming, the way in which the crafts the rhythm of each song with various other instruments is rarely anything short of stunning. The final member of the band is keyboardist Brian Gascoigne. Filling in many of the open spaces with his playing and sound effects, Gascoigne gives each song their final touch and it is often his work that enables the music to defy description. Each of Scott Walker's compositions that is found on Tilt is truly a work of genius, and the core musicians that perform these works of art do them justice at every turn, and it is a musical experience like no other.

While the textures that Scott Walker composes are truly beyond words, it is quite clear that the way in which he sings was a key element in his creation of the songs. Moreso then nearly anywhere else in music history, Walkers' voice is truly an instrument onto itself on Tilt, and it his singing and moaning blend in perfectly with the rest of the music. Dark and melancholy, but not evil or angry, the voice of Walker is low and powerful and unlike that of any other singer. Though there are times where both in tone and vocal approach, Walker bears resemblance to Nick Cave, where Cave is more "rock," Walker is more in search of a darker, more lonesome sound. When it comes to the lyrics of the songs on Tilt, one would be hard pressed to find a lyricists whose words were more purely poetic then those of Walker. Rarely approaching any sort of "formal" poetry in style, Walker's lyrics are often more akin to the style and substance of the "beat' era, and this intertwines perfectly with the music over which he performs. Whether he is mixing in biblical allusions with a dingy bar as on "Bouncer See Bouncer" or forcing one to question if he is singing of modern urban tragedy or tales of Native Americans from hundreds of years ago on the title track, Walker writes words that are far beyond that of nearly every other singer in history. Presenting the absolutely ideal combination of phenomenal lyrics and his uniquely fantastic voice, Scott Walker used Tilt to prove that even in an era when music seemed to be becoming annoyingly homogeneous, new sounds and directions were available to anyone brave enough to follow.

There are virtually no artists in music history who, like Scott Walker, found artistic success in three very different musical eras with three very different sounds. From his early days writing Brit-pop with The Walker Brothers to his forays into dark, avant musical atmospheres, everything he has ever created musically is absolutely fantastic. The fact that Walker was able to so completely step away from the music world and then return with an album as stunning as Tilt serves as a testament to just how much talent lives within him and how much one can accomplish if they refuse to be boxed in by any preconceived notions of musical structures or sound. By far one of the most innovative and original performers in music history, there is truly nobody who made music quite like Walker, and the albums that have followed Tilt continue to create new ways to present the moody, gloomy compositions which Walker writes. In recent years, Walker's status as an icon of music has been further solidified by the fact that David Bowie produced a documentary about his life titled Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. With countless modern and classic artists all jumping in to give their take on Walker's impact on modern music, one can make the case that Walker is by far the most famous, unknown artist in music history. To fully understand why Scott Walker is so worthy of all of these honors and accolades, one need look no further then his startlingly bleak, yet absolutely stunning 1995 musical masterpiece, Tilt.

Standout tracks: "Farmer In The City," "Bouncer See Bouncer," and "Rosary."

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