It's the Signs as We See Them
On the back of Scott 4, there's a quote from French author/philosopher Albert Camus. "A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."
Quoting Camus must have served warning to unsuspecting listeners that Scott Walker —the handsome American crooner who'd found '60s pop superstardom in swingin' London— was lost to heady, intellectualist territory. After three albums that found Walker mixing and matching light pop standards, the chansons of Flemish raconteur Jacques Brel, and his own ambitious compositions, Scott 4 was the first record on which he wrote everything. In respect to such, the album was initially credited to Noel Scott Engel. Which may've been the reason why, after his first three LPs hit the UK Top 10, Scott 4 was a commercial disaster.
Viewed from the safety of hindsight, the fact that Walker's unquestioned masterpiece was a commercial failure speaks of both the fleeting, fatuous nature of pop fandom and the notion that this album was, in many ways, out of its time.
Four decades on, and Scott 4 is a landmark. It's inspired The Smiths, Radiohead, and Goldfrapp, and served as a veritable stylistic bible for Walker acolytes the Divine Comedy, Tindersticks, and Pulp. And, now, the things that may've alienated listeners in its day —Walker's weird interpretive delivery, the uneasy orchestrations, the strange, strained relationship between the emotionality of lyric and music— sound classical.
His Crusade Was a Search for God, They Say
Scott 4 is an album near-operatic in its scope: Walker's deep baritone taking charge of emotionally-wrought, character-driven lyrics; giving kitchen-sink dramas a genuine gravitas. Its Wally Stott orchestrations walks a fine line between cheesy and crazy, between harmony and atonalism. On the solemn, eerie "Boy Child," slippery strings keen sinuously whilst a hammered dulcimer plonks forlornly at the fore; Walker singing of "fragments/swirling through the winds of night."
In many ways, "Boy Child" defines the main stylistic bent of Scott 4, an album that finds Walker 'interpreting' the notion of song in a liberal way; his voice seeking to distance itself from the music in subtle and unexpected ways. Whilst the opulent orchestrations still work with a sense of beauty, Walker seeks to undermine this: singing tales of European art cinema and transvestites, questioning the existence of God and the fascism of Soviet Russia.
Therein lies the genius of Scott 4. To a casual listener, especially in this day, it may initially appear to be an album of middle-of-the-road '60s balladry, swamped in impossibly epic string-sections, belted out in a velvety croon. But each subsequent listen reveals some strange new inflection or sonority; shows that its grandeur is a shrine not to perfection, but imperfection. "Didn't you know I'm not the world's strongest man?" Walker sings. In pop music, such weakness isn't tolerated; in art, it's one step closer to greatness.
Record Label: Fontana
Release Date: November 1969