Tuesday, 21 July 2009

SCOTT WALKER: Lost In The Stars

While the moon prepared to be landed upon forty summers ago, Scott Walker was in our top ten with an album of show tunes derived from his shortlived peaktime BBC TV series. This series did its best to persuade its public that Walker was harmless, safe, a reliable crooner in the Humperdinck camp into which so many reluctant late sixties solo male artists were being pushed; those deemed too glossy for the bedsits – but who in turn-of-the-sixties Britain wrote better about bedsitland than Walker? – or too clean for prog/metal, or too solitary for groups.

Walker has resisted all attempts to reissue this record (and various others, such as 1972’s film theme collection The Moviegoer) which he has deemed unrepresentative of what he has been about. Certainly the record’s commercial success somewhat cancelled out Scott 4, sneaked out (under his real name of Noel Scott Engel) towards the end of 1969 without anyone really noticing. At the same time he was “enjoying” a Top 20 single with the non-album “Lights Of Cincinatti,” which despite its vague made-to-measure sentimentality and less vague melodic resemblance to “The Twelfth Of Never” contains one of the most heartfelt vocal performances from this lost Ohio boy.

I finally tracked down a copy of the album this weekend, and unexpectedly so, since it was sitting in the £1/please-take-it-off-our-hands racks. Surveying the package, its presence wasn’t entirely surprising, since its condition betrayed the fact that this record had been through the wars (“The War Is Over”!), although on turntable testing, despite the ceaseless “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” crackles in the background, it played perfectly well (only jumping a couple of times, and I managed to clean out both of the offenders). Most significant, however, was the fact that the cover, with Scott’s studiously glum profile, was cleft precisely in twain; there was a straight rip right down the middle, as though Walker himself had intervened to divide his public misperception.

The record itself holds an interesting assemblage of tunes, and nearly uniformly fine vocal performances – he takes a deep breath, goes for that high C at the end of “The Impossible Dream” and nets it easily, but “The Look Of Love” really isn’t him. The song selection, too, is gratifying non-obvious; Aznavour’s “Who (Will Take My Place)” has a particularly truthful vocal. Robert Farnon’s bitter-lovely “Country Girl” is given the right kind of tender grieving, the Jobim essay (“Someone To Light Up My Life”) makes one wish he had sought Antonio out first hand. Much of this provides a fascinating counterpart to the controlled, internalised melancholy evident throughout Scott 3. Set against this must be Peter Knight’s arrangements, which generally do Walker no favours, and sub-Rat Pack big band romps like “Will You Still Be Mine?” and “The Song Is You” are genuinely ill-conceived.

But Walker’s “Lost In The Stars” stuck with me; Sinatra’s earlier reading may well be the definitive one, but this version actively builds a bridge between showbiz obligations and the less easily negotiable conduits of Scott 4; the singer foresees his loneness – never to be confused with loneliness – in his resigned sigh of “And one little star fell alone.” He resigns himself to God finding his mislaid constellation but the song – an “Ol’ Man River” for the apartheid age – requires its singer to drift confusedly between clouds of doubt and hope. Knight’s orchestra is relevant but discreet, but Scott already knows that where his star is heading, few will dare to follow him; the delicately pregnant pauses and perspectival differences between his “Little stars” and “Big stars,” echoed by orchestral pauses of varying volume, finally lead him to an outbuilding of terminal uncertainty; his voice wanders off into the middle distance, Knight’s strings and woodwinds cut the thread with tonality, and he might be playing chess with Death, or be the boy child awaiting baptism by ashen angels; as with Neil Armstrong, he is aware that he will never really get back to where he once belonged. Not when you've seen what he saw.