Scott Walker’s Legacy as a Vocal Auteur

The singer, dead at 76, morphed from a ’60s pop idol into an avant-garde legend. But his voice and his fatalism were consistent.

A recent press image of Scott Walker
Jamie Hawkesworth / 4AD

Scott Walker’s career disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line that there are no second acts in American life. An Ohio boy who became an idol in the smiley ’60s trio the Walker Brothers, Walker transitioned into making auteurist chamber pop, vanished from the public eye, and reemerged in the ’90s with acclaimed experimental compositions involving hammered meat, executioner-blade shings!, and fart sounds. After his death at 76, he’ll now be remembered as having pulled off one of the greatest shape-shifting acts in any artistic medium ever.

But maybe his career should not be seen as a series of departures, but rather as a continuum. There’s a reason that the title of 1969’s “30th Century Man” only felt more apt over time, up through his final work on the soundtrack for the demented pop-star satire of 2018’s Vox Lux. Walker’s voice was a prime model in a great American line stretching through lounge legends and Andrew Lloyd Webber hambones. In a tone as pungent and thick as hair gel, his phrasings presumed that “conversational” could never be a virtue. At first, he capitalized on that style’s accessibility. Then he laid bare its strangeness.

Vocal beauty and earnest exertion are traditionally the provenance of love songs, the likes of which propelled the Walker Brothers to briefly rival the Beatles for fame in the mid-’60s. Even then, something intense and mystical marked Walker’s take on conventions set by the likes of Roy Orbison and Phil Spector. The lyrics of 1966’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio and originally recorded in 1965 by Frankie Valli, are supersaturated versions of platitudes: “Loneliness is a cloak you wear / A deep shade of blue is always there.” Walker’s delivery, and the string pileup around him, get at the apocalyptic stakes of this heartbreak.

The Walker Brothers dissolved in the late ’60s, and Scott went on to release a string of solo albums that were visionary but under-heralded in their time. Scott 3 and Scott 4 are particularly sharp examples of how he came to understand that a voice as proud and strong as his could achieve something fresh by drawing discomfiting contrasts. On “It’s Raining Today,” strings drone near atonality, and wind chimes convey not only a weather theme but also a sense of the fantastical. Walker perches his voice high above the instruments, pushing a familiar lonely-hearts routine to somewhere more impressionistic and heavy: “The street corner girl’s a cold trembling leaf.”

It was in these late-’60s albums that he began to use his voice to convey dramas other than those of romance: the kind that were existential, political, and surreal. On “The Seventh Seal,” he provided a sing-along synopsis of Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic treatise on death. While the title and strummy gait of “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” might scan as standard Baby Boomer protest fare, there’s no urgency of tone and no indignation, only a biblical sense of inevitability. It’s as if Walker stepped outside history to comment on it. The masses under a dictator’s yoke “queue all day, like dragons of disgust.”

The fascist impulse—and its tools of sadism and humiliation—clearly fascinated Walker as he ventured toward more daring sounds. After a slew of conventional early-’70s albums that Walker would later disavow as having been made to fulfill a contractual obligation, the Walker Brothers got back together, with efforts including 1978’s surprisingly idiosyncratic Nite Flights. Its lead single, “The Electrician,” fused Broadway-worthy orchestral reveries with the creepy atmospherics of that era’s art-rock pioneers, such as Suicide and Television. Walker’s lyrics, it’s believed, were about a CIA torturer. Later, his sole ’80s album, Climate of Hunter, would pair jazzy twinkles with an S&M-tinged poem about the flesh of chattel: “Motionless brands burn into a hip frame.”

Such disturbing and hypnotic efforts were foreshocks of 1995’s Tilt, Walker’s big dive into the avant-garde. The loud/soft whiplash and industrial thrum of its second song, “The Cockfighter,” announced a yet-more-disorienting take on ’90s disaffection than even Nine Inch Nails or David Lynch was attempting. But Walker could still provide beauty in equally shocking measure. The opener, “Farmer in the City,” demanded attention as surely as any of Walker’s ’60s jingles did. His aria-singing made a monument against a vast, desolate soundscape. Alluding to the murder of the director Pier Paolo Pasolini, he described a general death of innocence and belonging: “I used to be a citizen / And I never felt the pressure / I knew nothing of the horses / Nothing of the thresher.” On record, that passage is chilling in the literal sense.

Stark, recognizable emotions would remain integral even as Walker burrowed to more preposterous dreamlands for 2006’s The Drift (the one with the meat thwacking) and 2012’s Bish Bosch (its title a play on the word bitch and the painter Hieronymus Bosch). Amid the clatter, the drone, and his sometimes trollish word association about human degradation, Walker’s handsome voice remained primed for a gilded stage. And even against the strangest of his backdrops were reminders of pop touchstones who were both influences of and quite plausibly influenced by Walker: David Bowie, David Byrne, Nick Cave. Often the rawest moments came when his dark prophecies seemed to allude to the tensions in his own work—the sugar with the poison, and the audacity that grew with age. “While plucking feathers from a swan song,” he crooned on the opener to Bish Bosch, “Spring might gently press its thumbs against your eyes.”