Scott Walker is one of those cult artists you discover via one means or another and afterward you wonder why he's only a cult artist. Assuming you aren't aware of him and you have Netflix, you can't do much better than watching the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man as an introduction to his music. Even if you don't end up digging his stuff it's still a fascinating story of a man whose career saw him moving between pop stardom, increasingly experimental baroque/orchestral vocal pop music, sellout-ish slum work that he still won't allow to be re-printed, and finally, over a period of 28 years, producing one album per decade that were among the most unique, arguably innovative, and experimental records of their (or any) era.
Well, that's not technically true. If I'm going to count the 70s I have to cheat a bit, since he didn't really release an album then. Rather he contributed four tracks to the last album by The Walker Brothers. Since his material is so unlike the rest of the album's songs, it's almost best to consider his material an EP and listen to it as such. But I digress.Despite its 1978 release, Nite Flights is predictive of certain aesthetic trends in 80s pop music, by which I mean, the digital sounding instruments and distinctly 80s album cover (which is vaguely Peter Gabriel-esque thanks to being designed by the famous Hipgnosis team). In some sense you can posit it as existing in the same school as 70s art/experimental pop by the likes of Brian Eno and David Bowie. Both appear in the 30 Century Man documentary discussing Nite Flights and the latter went so far as to cover the title track. Walker was likely influenced by them as well, since the first song, 'Shutout', bears a searing guitar part highly reminiscent of Robert Fripp's playing on Eno's 70s solo albums. This is the most 'normal' of his Nite Flights tracks though Walker's oddly processed vocals, sounding half robotic and half human, keep things from being a bit too predictable.
'Fat Mama Kick' is where we first hear what Walker had been keeping inside all those years after the commercial failure of his last genuinely artistic record, Scott 4. It's also the most obvious bridge/jumping-off-point from this album to the rest of his career, pointing pretty clearly to his next release, Climate Of Hunter. It may not sound as timeless as his other beloved work, bearing obvious 80s sounding elements, but the oblique lyrics and at-the-time shocking dissonance of the other sonic elements make this quite unlike any other 70s/80s music out there. Plus that weird burbling keyboard line makes me smile for some reason.
Though as accessible as 'Shutout', the title track has such hypnotic delivery of such impenetrable-but-sparse lyrics that it seems like Walker might have used William Burrough's cut-up technique to randomly jumble words and phrases together into a seemingly coherent whole despite the randomness. Well, as they say, the human mind is designed to look for patterns and order in all things, and 'Nite Flights' is thus an eternal puzzle. I'm sure it means something; it makes me feel something when I hear this song but I sure couldn't explain what that is. As Walker's music becomes more abstract and hard to define, it also becomes more personal and difficult to discuss. You really just need to go to YouTube and listen to these songs.
Especially since up next is 'The Electrician', which quite humorously was released as a single(!). I was so astounded by this song when it came up in the 30 Century Man documentary that I thought I might've accidentally fast-forwarded past something. Seemingly a few minutes before, they were talking about the Walker Brothers reunion in the 70s and how Walker was at a low point artistically. And then...well here's the lyrics that floored me:
the SPIRITUS SANCTUS
the dark hip falls
OH YOU MAMBOS
jerk - the handle
in your dreams
jerk - the handle
jerk - the handle
Keep in mind that this is all set to a backing of abrasive repetitive strings that give way to a soaring orchestral melody that harkens back to his 'classic' late 60s records. We can now see this as the last time he would do this sort of music, and I have to wonder if it was his way of either bidding farewell to it or throwing the audience a bone for making it through the desolate atmosphere which surrounds this orchestral section on either end. Those desolate atmospheres with abstract, stunning lyrics, oddly enough, don't really point to his next album, Climate Of Hunter, as they do his next albums after that, 1995's Tilt and 2006's The Drift.
Even at its most experimental, Climate Of Hunter is in many ways more accessible and 'pop' than his material on Nite Flights. Rather than the musical direction picking up from 'The Electrician', it's as though he picked up from 'Shutout' and 'Nite Flights' instead. Which could've produced a throughly brilliant work except that, oops, this record was made in the 1980s and thus has that hideous 80s production style and flat/digital drum sound that make me wince. Were it recorded immediately after Nite Flights or with a different record label, Climate Of Hunter would undoubtedly be more interesting. Walker's lyrics may be as brilliant as ever, but unfortunately, by and large Climate Of Hunter is one of those cases where something sounded cutting edge and weird upon its release but seems dated and flat when heard today.
Now, I did refer to this album in the first paragraph above as being one of "the most unique, arguably innovative, and experimental records of its (or any) era", and I still mean that. It doesn't mean it's a particularly great record, besides which, the state of creativity in 80s music, pop or otherwise, was so abysmal that it's still, at the very least, more interesting than most of its contemporaries. Keep in mind that in 1984 former creative contemporaries of Walker's had been all but subdued by the contentment and lack-of-ambition which infected many former innovators in their transition from the 70s to the 80s. In Bowie's case, he became one of the embodiments of 1980s vaguely danceable pop music (that said, ironically, I think 'Let's Dance' is the best song Bowie ever did). In Eno's case, he retreated entirely from his astonishing 70s art/experimental pop records into enjoyable-but-forgettable ambient albums and a flourishing career as producer. In Walker's case...well, he tries to have it both ways. I doubt any other album from the 80s has guest appearances from Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler...and a free-jazz saxophonist (Evan Parker).
All of this is a long way of saying, Climate Of Hunter has aged poorly but not as poorly as other 80s music. In 2012, it's not enjoyable as pop music (as some of Bowie's 80s material is, say) and it's not weird/experimental enough (as Tom Wait's 80s material is, say) to qualify as anything other than a curio from a fucked up decade. Perhaps a better way of saying it would be, Climate Of Hunter sounds like other 80s music in the broad sense, but very little 80s music really sounds like it where it counts, in the details. It's a record you might listen to a couple times and file away, now having an idea of how he got from there (going further back to his 60s stuff) to here (his nightmare-like soundscapes from his more modern work).