Scott Walker – “5 Easy Pieces” (2003)

March 20, 2011 at 10:05 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A review of this career-spanning box set from always interesting Scott Walker, taken from the Pitchfork Media website and written by Scott Plagenhoef, Jan. 12, 2004…

Anthologizing Scott Walker’s career is a daunting task. Along with Walker, perhaps only The Beatles, Roxy Music, John Cale and David Bowie have engulfed themselves in both art and pop and created such riches in each vein. Incredibly, Walker swung much further in each direction than any of those other artists, singing standards (and other housewives’ choices) on a TV variety show, and creating famously impenetrable, esoteric work on his most recent (a loosely used term here, to be sure) solo albums. Therefore, the first challenge of any examination of his career demands rectifying the split between his more populist and cerebral impulses. Happily, the five-disc, 93-track 5 Easy Pieces rises to the challenge, capturing the on-the-surface duality between Walker’s MOR song styling and his avant-garde leanings, as well as demonstrating the common ground shared by everything he did in between.

Born Scott Engel in Ohio, Walker was one-third of The Walker Brothers, a group of ex-pats sold back to America as the crooner arm of the British Invasion, but it was in the UK that The Walker Brothers had the most success, enjoying a pair of #1 singles and rivaling The Beatles, Stones, and Monkees as the biggest-selling band of the mid-1960s. (Conversely, their U.S. run consisted of just two top 20 singles.) The group disbanded in 1967, and Walker released four solo albums over the next three years, laying his expressive and sometimes bombastic vocals over lush string and horn arrangements. More a Left Bank stylist than a Las Vegas one, Walker’s earliest solo records are best characterized by bawdy, cabaret-esque Jacques Brel covers.

Soon, however, Walker shifted from song interpretations to original compositions. These songs, colored by existentialist musings, overweight prostitutes, Josef Stalin, The Seventh Seal, and the Sisyphean struggles of vulnerable, damaged souls, didn’t sit well with his established fanbase. The commercial failure of Walker’s fourth (and best) solo album, Scott 4 — the first of his releases to feature only his own songwriting, and one criminally not represented on this box by either “Duchess” or “Two Ragged Soldiers” — dented his confidence. After 1970’s ‘Til the Band Comes In — a quick follow-up split evenly between Walker originals and covers — also tanked, Walker spent the rest of the first half of that decade returning to his balladeer roots. During this time, he hosted his own TV variety show and released five limp albums of standards, film themes, and country-tinged pop covers.

When a couple of mid-70s albums by the reunited Walker Brothers did little to stir the commercial or critical pot, Walker’s career seemed stranded. Yet, unexpectedly, on a third Walker Brothers comeback album, 1978’s Nite Flights, Scott kicked off the second half of his career, offering four original tracks — his first compositions in eight years. Angular pieces with opaque lyrics and elements of both Krautrock and Sheffield’s burgeoning electronic scene, Walker’s new work couldn’t have been further from the Nashville-tinged dirges that the Brothers Mk. II had been recording. After that release, Walker drifted further into reclusion, releasing solo albums in 1984 (Climate of Hunter) and 1995 (Tilt), only recently re-surfacing to do soundtrack, songwriting, and production work for (or alongside) artists ranging from Pulp to Ute Lemper to Sonic Youth.

Earlier attempts to compile Walker’s career have focused either solely on The Walker Brothers or his initial solo output. Of the latter, Razor & Tie’s It’s Raining Today is far too Spartan and scattershot to be recommended. The UK releases were only a slightly better bet: Sings Jacques Brel and Boy Child — which compiles the best of Walker’s own writing from 1967-1970 — are merely adequate snapshots of one particular phase of Walker’s career.

A specialist approach was also attempted by the compilers of 5 Easy Pieces, in which each of the set’s discs is arranged by theme, or “ways into the heart of Scott Walker.” The In My Room disc collects kitchen-sink dramas and lonely howls at the moon. Where’s the Girl? is subtitled Songs of Lady, Love and Loss, but as its proper title suggests, the emphasis is on “loss.” The third disc, An American in Europe, divvies up his ruminations on his home and adopted home — thankfully including only one of his country-rock songs. This Is How You Disappear — despite borrowing its title from “Patriot”, a track on CD3 — is an alternate “greatest hits,” focusing on Walker’s later, more avant-garde releases. Finally, Scott on Screen collects his cinematic works, most notably a portion of the score he composed for Leos Carax’s 1999 film Pola X.

With a large number of rare and out-of-print tracks sitting alongside most of his best-known work, this is a rare collection that would appeal to both Walker devotees and novices. And with a few exceptions, each disc is arranged chronologically, demonstrating in some cases that Walker’s unusual path didn’t have as many sharp turns as most would think. In My Room and Where’s the Girl? each feature a half-dozen of the more dark, brooding Walker Brothers tracks. It’s just as well: The popular Walker Brothers songs are easily found on bargain comps, and none of them are predicative of Walker’s solo career. So, for example, instead of a U.S. hit like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)”, you get that record’s stronger B-side, the Drifters-like “After the Lights Go Out”. Each of these dozen tracks — ranging from the full-throated Wall of Sound of “Hurting Each Other” (a song popularized by The Guess Who!) to the bedsit lament of “In My Room” — is a well-selected gem.

The bulk of the first two discs, however, is made up of Walker’s best-known solo songs: lush, emotionally engaging ballads such as “It’s Raining Today”, “Montague Terrace (in Blue)”, and “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg”. Among his rarer works here are the jazz-tinged “Joe” and “Time Operator”, “Someone Who Cared” — the slow-burning highlight of Stretch — and the largely forgettable Esther Ofarim-voiced “Long About Now” from Til’ the Band Comes In. Where’s the Girl? also includes a pair of dramatic, sprawling 11-minute epics written for German chanteuse Ute Lemper’s 2000 album Punishing Kiss (which also features compositions from Nick Cave, Neil Hannon, and Elvis Costello), each of which is rich in both ambition and nuance.

An American in Europe is the most accessible of the five discs. The first half (“Europe”) is highlighted by eight mostly buoyant, sexually charged and rousing Brel covers that no doubt caused more than a few blushes when they were first released. It also boasts Walker’s excellent Brelian pastiche “The Girls from the Streets” and the Scott 3 highlight “Copenhagen”. The “America” half kicks off with the militaristic march of “We Came Through”, and includes the delicate twang of “Rhymes of Goodbye”, B-side “My Way Home”, and “Cowbells Shakin'”, the title track to The Walker Brothers’ Lines, and four of the more less-then-leftfield tracks from Climate of Hunter and 1995’s notoriously difficult Tilt.

Speaking of “difficult”, the gloves are off on This Is How You Disappear, which for long-time fans is perhaps the most intriguing of the discs, as it tells a fairly linear alternate history of Walker’s career. The disc has a mere three songs plucked from his late-60s period: much beloved B-side “The Plague”, “Plastic Palace People”, and “Boy Child”. For the most part, though, it’s dominated by the most crucial tracks from his post-1970 albums: four each from The Walker Brothers’ 1978 comeback Nite Flights (the only ones on that album penned by Scott), Climate of Hunter, and Tilt. Walker’s vaguely Frippian/Teutonic work for Nite Flights peaks with the underrated synth-pop of “The Electrician”, a benchmark for the late-70s Berlin fashionistas and a template for the more uncompromising post-punk electronic artists such as Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League. The Climate of Hunter tracks are even more textural and abstract, and those from Tilt can be exercises in patience and endurance for some listeners.

Scott on Screen is the set’s least essential collection of music, but perversely, is the most valuable to the box, as it collects seven Pola X pieces, as well as works from nine additional sources (including, oddly, the recent James Bond film The World Is Not Enough). Cherry-picking a number of excellent curios from Walker’s past (including a mere one cut from career low-light The Moviegoer) and mixing them with his haunting orchestral work, Scott on Screen is the disc best approached as individual tracks. Of course, a document of Walker’s film work was never going to be anything but slightly clumsy when presented on one disc, and it’s a tiny quibble for rescuing a number of his lesser-known and difficult-to-find (even by file-sharing standards) works.

An increasingly revered figure, Scott Walker is a singular craftsmen, one of rock’s few individuals to demonstrate a willingness to both embrace elements of the unfashionable and ignore prevailing trends, yet also display an acute awareness of contemporary sounds. Forgoing many of the stylistic trappings of rock, Walker has explored a broad range of Western musical styles and displayed an intellectualism that is at times subversive, hilarious, cutting and poignant. It’s a slight bit odd to attempt to delve into the heart and mind of one of pop’s most anomalous and enigmatic figures by examining his work — that’s an approach more often reserved for long-departed painters, sculptors or writers who created in often self-conscious “periods.” Therefore, as an exploration of an artist’s psyche, 5 Easy Pieces is incomplete at best. More importantly, however, as an exploration of this artist’s career, it’s endlessly rewarding, almost wholly engrossing, and long overdue.

Scott Plagenhoef

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