Album Review: Scott Walker - Scott 3

There’s a beautifully mournful moment about half way into the first track on Scott 3, It’s Raining Today, which sums up the whole of Scott Walker’s career. The strings which envelop the song, subtly change down a chord or two and suddenly Walker’s words have added gravity:

“We go like lovers / To replace the empty space /
Repeat our dreams to someone new.”

The first line is hopelessly romantic: a vision of something complete, two people in love going through life together. The next lines however, send shivers down your spine. This is love that is trying to fill something that’s lost, a repeated vignette that has not yet succeeded. Someone who’s been hurt before but goes into every relationship with the same gusto, sure that this time will be the one. This flip from happy to sad in the space of a few words sums up the whole song, the whole album and Walker’s whole career.

Walker has built a career out of subverting expectations. Beginning in the pop group The Walker Brothers in the early 1960s (none of whom actually had the name Walker) Noel Scott Engel was already carving out a different path to the other two members of the band. While their records depicted hollow if extremely gorgeous, covers of classics that were sure to make people swoon, Engel’s own writing, as seen with outtakes like Mrs. Murphy, was mature beyond his age. On the basis of songs like this alone, Engel deserved a solo career and so, in 1967, Engel continued under the name Scott Walker and released four solo albums, each emblazoned with ‘Scott’ and their respective number. 

Scott Walker’s music was typically MOR: pop songs and covers that were buoyed with vast production and heavy strings. However, of the few original songs he wrote on Scottand Scott 2, none were as straight forward as first appearances revealed. Take The Amorous Humphrey Plugg from Scott 2: with its tale of a womanizing “big shot” who’s reduced to child rearing, it’s at once hilarious and damning. At this point, Walker’s dark tendencies had not reached their peak… this would change on Scott 3.

From the opening and dissonantly queasy strings of It’s Raining Today, the atmosphere of Scott 3 can be cut with a knife. It’s not long before you realise the same droning strings that opened the album have continued on beneath Walker’s words. It gives the song a sense of unease that immediately- almost subliminally- puts you on edge. Over the top of this however, Walker’s deep, rich, reassuring croon (probably the best in the industry) and its tale of purposefully unrequited love and lost opportunities keeps the song from falling into a pool of its own dark ambience. The song microcosms Walker’s career perfectly: one of the juxtapositions between the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the evil. It’s this that gives his stately romanticism the edge it needs to become truly great.

He inspired Midge Ure to write Vienna, he made David Bowie cry by wishing him happy birthday, and without him, Jarvis Cocker wouldn’t be nearly as scandalous as he was.

– Kieran Baddeley

The first ten songs on the album can be seen as a suite, playing for no longer than 25 minutes. Each is written by Walker in the same style as the first song. From the embittered Rosemary to the rousing cavalry charge of We Came Through, the album never loses the sense that’s something is wrong, out of place somehow. 

Some of this is due to Walker’s lyrics. Rosemary, for instance, shows him wanting “a new shot at life” but his “coat’s too thin and feet won’t fly” and just like that, he watches “another dream, blowin by…” The staccato strings that cloud the verses stand as plain reminders that Walker’s stories of “evenings with your mother’s friends” are dripping with every bit of distaste you expect them to be. It’s this that makes him such a good lyricist- he is just as adept at singing about Gonorrhoea (Next, Scott 2) to singing about true love. Every word he wistfully bellows can be taken one way or another: the obvious meaning, or the dark and cruelly sarcastic way Scott wants you to take it. 

Most of this comes from Walker’s love of Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer. A girl introduced Walker to Brel and from the first listen, he had to share it with people. Brel’s often scandalous tales of prostitutes and the taboo had the most profound effect on Walker and many of his best covers are those of Brel songs. Scott 3 finishes with three of the best Brel covers Walker put to record and are a fitting reminder of where Walker has come from and a hint at the darkness to come. 

Of course, the unassuming public ignored these hints and Scott 3, despite being less successful than his first two albums, sold in good quantities. But, the world in 1969 had moved on from this type of music. In an era dominated by The Beatles and The Beach Boys, how could an artist writing an almost un-danceable album with a constant time signature of 4/4, expect to gain notoriety or even respect? From critics especially? Scott 3 turns 50 in March. In many ways, it’s taken nearly 50 years for people to pay attention to it. Yet, Walker’s influence has been all over music from the moment his lips parted. He inspired Midge Ure to write Vienna, he made David Bowie cry by wishing him happy birthday, and without him, Jarvis Cocker wouldn’t be nearly as scandalous as he was. More acclaim is given to Scott 4, released in the same year, which ditched the clinical strings for a warmer and more rock-orientated sound. It’s a masterpiece by all means, but so is Scott 3. More so, in my eyes.

Everything is not at it seems in Walker’s world. Your life was better yesterday; your life was better a year ago, a minute ago, a second ago.

Kieran Baddeley

To talk about influence with Scott Walker is like Alice going down the rabbit-hole: his career is so multifaceted most musicians are indebted in some way. Ranging from the austere pop of his self-titled records, through to the haunting ambience of 1984’s Climate of Hunter, through to his experimental work in the 90’s and 2000’s, Walker has been indelibly individual and unique. There are no albums quite like 1995’s Tilt and for good reason. Albums like these, so experimental and dark in their scope they eschew all pigeon-holing, happen once in a lifetime for some artists. Tilt is in its own league, unmatched by most artists who dare call their albums experimental and yet, Walker has made similar albums beyond Tiltand before Tilt. In my opinion, Walker’s experimental tendencies and his unmatched influence, began on Scott 3.

All of this experientialism however, doesn’t mean Walker is unapproachable. His songs are nearly always emotional, often viscerally so, but emotional all the same. He can make you laugh, gasp, gag, smile and cry, often within the same song. There’s always something to relate to. 

The latter of these reactions is best exemplified on Big Louise from Scott 3. Not only is it the album’s best song, but probably Walker’s best full-stop. It skips from clichéd metaphors of haunted houses with broken windows, to deeply sombre symbolism: “she fills the bags ‘neath her eyes with the moonbeams.” Scott originally wrote it about an aging transvestite but the words don’t necessarily show this. What they do show is a true artist subverting all expectations and creating a song that’s devastatingly novel despite its MOR veneer. The song ends with the lines:

“Didn’t time sound sweet yesterday?/
In a world filled with friends/
You lose your way”

They show that not everything is at it seems in Walker’s world. If you think your safe, you’re not. You are just as likely to lose your way anyway. Your life was better yesterday; your life was better a year ago, a minute ago, a second ago. It may be a foreboding thought, but when its delivered this beautifully, it’s hard not to take it to heart.