smear the mouth

Here’s the other item I wrote for my friend’s aborted book project, some years ago. This one’s on Scott Walker’s Tilt. I wish I could remember which famous or acclaimed album these things were to have been paired with…maybe (for this one) Big Star’s Sister Lovers?

Many albums get called “one of a kind,” but very few actually deserve that designation as richly as Tilt. Similar to Alex Chilton, Scott Walker began his career at its commercial peak, singing several hit singles with the Walker Brothers. And like Chilton’s, Walker’s career since has been a lengthy odyssey away from commerciality, sometimes with stunning results, sometimes disappointingly. With Tilt, Walker’s fierce refusal to compromise with expectations yields an intimidating, bleak album of arctic grandeur and isolation. Its emotional effect is comparable to that of the much better known Plastic Ono Band, but Lennon and Walker achieve similar ends through divergent but complementary means. Whereas Lennon strips his music down to basics – simple, sparse instrumentation and direct, straightforward lyrics – Walker strips away the basics, leaving a music seemingly devoid of any of the usual musical touchstones, with lyrics often so abstract as to be nearly impenetrable.

Walker sets his rich, creamy, dramatic baritone in a series of spare, minatory surroundings that seem to bear only the most gestural relation to rock songs in structure or sound. While instrumentation ranges broadly, augmenting a typical rock ensemble with strings, church organ, flutes, concertina, whistles, trumpets, along with industrial electronics (and in one song a recording of locusts that sounds like electronics), these sounds are deployed sparingly, jarringly, and discordantly against one another. Walker is as distinctive a lyricist as he is an arranger. Seemingly influenced by William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique, the songs speak in fragments, odd and haunting phrases alluding to everything from Italian films to Nuremberg trial excerpts. A certain peak of Walker’s achievement is Tilt‘s closing track, “Rosary,” in which Walker matches the desolate strangeness of the other tracks’ diverse arrangements on one self-played electric guitar. Halting, irregular notes chatter like the teeth of a dying man, as the lyrics suggest the desperation of the addict.

One of the most unexpected aspects of this expectation-refusing album is that, after several listens, most tracks reveal something that could, in more conventional settings, pass muster as a catchy chorus. And the songs’ melodic contours turn out to be not that far removed from the rock vernacular, although the surpassing strangeness of their surroundings makes this difficult to hear. As a result, the album thaws a bit as one lives with it for a while – which only increases its emotional intensity.

Truly chilling, forbidding, but ultimately rewarding, Tilt comprises a genre of one.

Scott Walker “Rosary” (Tilt, 1995)
Scott Walker “Face on Breast” (Tilt, 1995)

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